I noticed a post on mlbtraderumors.com to the effect that the Korean Baseball Organization, or KBO, is upset about the Orioles signing 17 year old pitcher Seong-Min Kim and may complain to MLB’s commissioner’s office. This is obviously nothing more than resentment at MLB coming in and poaching Korean talent which the KBO feels it should have first and exclusive crack at.
At any rate, it got me thinking about the KBO again. I wrote about Korean ace Yoon Suk Min a couple of months ago (although I now realize we would call him Suk Min Yoon here in the U.S., Yoon being his family name), but I have more to say about the KBO, so here goes.
The eight team KBO is rapidly growing and getting better in terms of the baseball its playing. As I mentioned in the post on Yoon, former major leaguer Dustin Nippert was the KBO’s second best pitcher in 2011, which is not surprising given that Nippert was an established major league pitcher still near the peak of his career at the time he went to Korea.
Each KBO team can have two foreign players on its roster at any given time, and those roster spots are in fact all filled with foreigners. KBO teams prefer foreign pitchers — 19 of the 22 foreigners who played all or part of the 2011 season in the KBO were hurlers.
Most of these guys are AAA pitchers with taste of the major leagues, like former Giants Ryan Sadowski and Travis Blackley. However, major leaguers Denny Bautista and Justin Germano pitched in Korea in 2011, and Anthony Lerew and Scott Proctor will be playing there is 2012.
In other words, the foreign players now playing in Korea are only a hair below those being recruited to play in Japan’s NPB. Although they generally have a higher probability of success in the KBO, compared to NPB, they aren’t exactly dominating the league, aside from Nippert and Bautista, who pitched great last year in a relief role.
KBO teams don’t have more foreign players almost certainly because they can’t afford to. While four of the eight KBO teams drew between 998,000 and 1,358,322 fans last season, none of the bottom four teams drew as many as 600,000 or even averaged as many as 9,000 fans a game.
Even so, KBO attendance was up 15% in 2011 compared to the year before, which means the professional sport is still growing rapidly there, which is not entirely surprising when you remember that the league has only been in existence since 1982.
The best two hitters in the KBO last year (by a wide margin) were Dae-Ho (“Big Boy”) Lee of the Lotte Giants and Hyung-woo Choi of the Samsung Lions (as in Japan, KBO teams are owned and sponsored by major corporations who see them as good advertising as much as profit-making ventures in and of themselves.
Lee is called “Big Boy” because baseball reference lists him as 6’4″ and 286 lbs. Choi is listed as 5’10″ and 190 lbs, but he looks heavier in the pictures I’ve seen.
Lee hit .357 (1st) with 27 HRs (2nd) and a 1.011 OPS (2nd), while Choi hit .340 (2nd) with 30 HRs (1st) and a 1.044 OPS (1st). They finished second and third in the MVP voting behind Yoon.
Big Boy Lee won the KBO’s MVP award in 2010 and failed to win the award in 2006 despite being only the second triple crown winner in KBO history, due to the fact that pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu won the pitcher’s triple crown that year. (KBO MVP voters are relatively more likely to give the award to pitchers than MLB MVP voters are: 12 of 30 KBO MVPs have been pitchers.) Hyung-woo Choi was the KBO’s Rookie of the Year in 2008.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see either Lee or Choi playing in the U.S. Lee will be 30 next June, and he just signed a two-year 760 million yen ($9.97 million at current exchange rates) contract to play for the Orix Buffaloes. Choi is already 28 years old, and he is still under the control of his KBO team for at least a few more years because his professional career got started a little late.
In one piece of good news for KBO fans upset about Big Boy Lee’s departure is the fact that KBO’s greatest star Seung-Yeop Lee is returning to the KBO after eight seasons playing in Japan. In nine KBO seasons between 1995 and 2003, Seung-Yeop won five MVP Awards. That’s right, five.
In Japan, S. Y. Lee was nearly as good, at least at first. He hit at least 30 HRs three years in a row, peaking in 2006, the middle year of the run, when he hit .323 with 41 HRs with 101 runs scored and 108 RBIs for the Yomiuri Giants. Since 2008, however, injuries and advancing age have slowed him down dramatically.
A couple of final thoughts about the KBO. First, KBO teams played a 133 game schedule last year, which means that each of the eight teams played every other team 19 times. This is the only instance I’ve ever heard of a professional baseball team intentionally playing an odd numbered schedule where teams don’t play the same number of games against each other home and away.
Second, Tyrone Woods, the best player (almost) no one in America has ever heard of. Woods spent ten years playing in the American minor leagues without ever getting even so much as a cup of coffee at the major league level. In fact, Woods didn’t even receive enough opportunities at the AAA level to prove himself a 4-A player of the type that often succeeds in the Far East.
In 1998, the first year in which the KBO allowed foreign players, Woods signed with the Doosan Bears and immediately won the league’s MVP award in his first season there. He put in four more outstanding years in the KBO before the Yokohama Bay Stars of the NPB came calling.
In six seasons in Japan, Woods never hit fewer than 35 HRs in a season, reaching 47 in 2006 and 45 in 2004. He retired after the 2008 season at the age of 39 with 240 NPB home runs, averaging an even 40 HRs per year. Woods was also a tough customer famed for decking pitchers who threw at him in both Korea and Japan.
A final shout out goes to mykbo.net from which much, but not all, of the information for this post was found.