KBO for Dummies: An MLB Fan's Guide to the Korean Baseball League
Who's ready for some live baseball?
The Korea Baseball Organization, which is the highest level of baseball in South Korea, is set to kick off its 2020 season May 5.
With the ongoing dearth of live sporting events, ESPN will be televising six KBO games per week starting with the season opener between the NC Dinos and Samsung Lions at 1 a.m. ET (10 p.m. PT) Monday evening/Tuesday morning.
The significant time difference between the United States and South Korea means most games will be televised in the wee hours of the morning. Still, it's live sports, and that's something we've not had for quite some time.
Ahead, you'll find everything you need to know about the upcoming KBO season, including the notable differences between the KBO and MLB, some key players to watch, familiar faces now playing overseas and a review of the 2019 season.
Let's get to it.
How Are They Handling COVID-19?
While MLB fans continue to contemplate what a 2020 season might look like, league officials will no doubt be watching closely to see how things unfold in the KBO.
As expected, the KBO season will begin without fans in attendance.
However, the league is also considering a plan that would eventually allow stadiums to be occupied at 20-25 percent capacity, according to Daniel Kim of Sports Magazine MBC.
Beyond that, there are also significant precautions being taken behind the scenes and on the field for both players and league personnel.
C. Trent Rosecrans of The Athletic offered up some notable details:
"KBO will have players' temperatures checked twice a day. Everyone not in uniform (including umpires and athletic trainers) will be required to wear face masks and gloves and there is a complete ban on spitting and high-fives. Players are encouraged to wear masks and protective gloves when not on the field. Media is allowed at the game, but there's no pregame access — the clubhouse is not normally open in the KBO, but there is usually access in the dugout — only a press conference with the manager. After the game, only a 'star of the game' and the manager will be available to the media."
Things may need to be altered on the fly, but for now, the KBO seems to have a solid plan in place to operate during the pandemic.
So, What's Different in the KBO?
While the KBO is largely the same on-field product as MLB, there are a few notable differences in how the league is formatted that are worth discussing.
First and foremost, the fact that there are fewer teams means there's a more balanced schedule.
The league plays a 144-game slate, which consists of each team facing the other nine teams a total of 16 times over the course of the season.
The regular season is followed by a markedly different playoff format than what MLB fans are used to, with regular-season success carrying significantly more weight.
The top five teams make the playoffs, and the team with the best record during the regular season receives a bye all the way to the championship series. The No. 4 and No. 5 seeds face off in a wild-card playoff with the winner meeting the No. 3 seed, and then the winner of that series plays the No. 2 seed for a chance to reach the finals. This year's regular season will end Nov. 2, with the postseason scheduled to begin Nov. 4.
Among the other notable differences are the inclusion of a universal designated hitter and the fact that ties are allowed. Games are ruled a tie after 12 innings, with that cutoff extended to 15 innings during the postseason.
The KBO has historically been a high-scoring league, but a deadened ball was introduced in 2019 in a transparent effort to balance the scales. It seemingly did just that, as Rosecrans explained:
"Last year, 1,014 home runs were hit, down from 1,754 the year before. Slugging percentage went from .452 in 2018 to .385 in 2019. Pitchers, of course, benefited, with the average ERA dropping from 5.14 in 2018 to 4.17 in 2019."
Aside from those few notable exceptions, specifically in terms of the playoff format, the KBO is largely the same product that MLB fans know and love.
The KBO played its inaugural season in 1982 and stands as South Korea's longest-running professional sports league.
What was initially a six-team league has since expanded to 10 teams.
The Kia Tigers (11), Samsung Lions (8) and Doosan Bears (6) have won 25 of the 38 league championships, and the Bears have been the cream of the crop in recent years, winning three titles and finishing runner-up twice in the last five years.
The greatest player in league history? That might be slugger Lee Seung-yuop, who is a five-time MVP and the league's all-time leader with 467 home runs, a whopping 116 more than any other player.
On the mound, left-hander Song Jin-woo is the all-time leader in wins (210), strikeouts (2,048) and innings pitched (3,003) over the course of a 21-year KBO career that spanned from 1989 through 2009.
Several notable KBO standouts have moved on to MLB success, including 2019 NL Cy Young runner-up Hyun-Jin Ryu and slugger Eric Thames.
While both Ryu and Thames are now playing stateside, there are plenty of active stars as well.
Current KBO Stars
LHP Yang Hyeon-jong, Kia Tigers (32 years old)
Yang is arguably the top returning pitcher in the league now that the Milwaukee Brewers' Josh Lindblom has made the move back to MLB. The left-hander went 16-8 with a 2.29 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 163 strikeouts in 184.2 innings to finish third in MVP voting last year, and he took home the award in 2017 when he was 20-6 with a 3.44 ERA in a more hitter-friendly environment.
C Yang Eui-ji, NC Dinos (32 years old)
In his first season with the Dinos after nine full campaigns with the Bears, Yang led the league in batting average (.354), on-base percentage (.438) and slugging (.574), adding 26 doubles, 20 home runs and 68 RBI. He was the runner-up in MVP voting to Lindblom.
1B Park Byung-ho, Kiwoom Heroes (33 years old)
After a brief, unsuccessful stint with the Minnesota Twins in 2016, Park has returned to the KBO and picked up right where he left off as one of the league's most productive sluggers. Last season, he hit .280/.398/.560 while leading the league with 33 home runs.
3B Choi Jeong, SK Wyverns (33 years old)
Entering his 16th season with the Wyverns, Choi has 335 home runs and 1,084 RBI in his KBO career. He showed no signs of slowing down last year, batting .292/.399/.519 with 27 doubles, 29 home runs and 99 RBI. He led the KBO in home runs in 2016 (40) and 2017 (46) and is a four-time Gold Glove winner at third base.
RF Kang Baek-ho, KT Wiz (20 years old)
One of the rising stars of the KBO, Kang hit .336/.416/.495 with 13 home runs and 65 RBI in his second professional season. While his power numbers dropped after a 29-homer rookie season, he trimmed his strikeout rate from 21.2 to 17.2 percent, showing an advanced approach for a player his age.
Each KBO team is allowed three foreign-born players on the roster, and there are plenty of familiar faces suiting up for the 2020 season. Here's a look at how each team will be using its three foreign player roster spots to open the year:
- Doosan Bears: RHP Raul Alcantara (Dominican Republic), RHP Chris Flexen (USA), IF Jose Miguel Fernandez (Cuba)
- Hanwha Eagles: LHP Chad Bell (USA), OF Jared Hoying (USA), RHP Warwick Saupold (Australia)
- Kia Tigers: RHP Aaron Brooks (USA), RHP Drew Gagnon (USA), OF Preston Tucker (USA)
- Kiwoom Heroes: RHP Jake Brigham (USA), LHP Eric Jokisch (USA), IF/OF Taylor Motter (USA)
- KT Wiz: RHP William Cuevas (Venezuela), RHP Odrisamer Despaigne (Cuba), OF Mel Rojas Jr. (USA)
- LG Twins: RHP Casey Kelly (USA), 1B Roberto Ramos (Mexico), RHP Tyler Wilson (USA)
- Lotte Giants: IF Dixon Machado (Venezuela), RHP Adrian Sampson (USA), RHP Dan Straily (USA)
- NC Dinos: OF Aaron Altherr (USA), RHP Drew Rucinski (USA), RHP Mike Wright Jr. (USA)
- Samsung Lions: RHP David Buchanan (USA), RHP Ben Lively (USA), IF/OF Tyler Saladino (USA)
- SK Wyverns: RHP Nick Kingham (USA), RHP Ricardo Pinto (Venezuela), 1B Jamie Romak (Canada)
Among the foreign-born standouts from last year were Wyverns first baseman Jamie Romak (.878 OPS, 29 HR, 95 RBI), Bears designated hitter Jose Miguel Fernandez (.892 OPS, 15 HR, 88 RBI, KBO-leading 197 hits) and the one-two punch of Casey Kelly (14-12, 2.55 ERA, 180.1 IP) and Tyler Wilson (14-7, 2.92 ERA, 185.0 IP) in the Twins rotation.
2019 KBO Season Review
Let's wrap things up with a look back at how the 2019 KBO season played out.
2019 Final Standings
1. Doosan Bears (88-55)
2. SK Wyverns (88-55)
3. Kiwoom Heroes (86-57)
4. LG Twins (79-64)
5. NC Dinos (73-69)
6. KT Wiz (71-71)
7. Kia Tigers (62-80)
8. Samsung Lions (60-83)
9. Hanwha Eagles (58-86)
10. Lotte Giants (48-93)
Wild Card: No. 4 LG Twins over No. 5 NC Dinos (2-0)
Semi-Playoff: No. 3 Kiwoom Heroes over No. 4 LG Twins (3-1)
Playoff: No. 3 Kiwoom Heroes over No. 2 SK Wyverns (3-0)
Korean Series: No. 1 Doosan Bears over No. 3 Kiwoom Heroes (4-0)
2019 League Leaders
BA: Yang Eui-ji, NC (.354)
OBP: Yang Eui-ji, NC (.438)
SLG: Yang Eui-ji, NC (.574)
OPS: Yang Eui-ji, NC (1.012)
H: Jose Miguel Fernandez, Doosan (197)
2B: Jerry Sands, Kiwoom (39)
3B: Lee Jung-hoo, Kiwoom (10)
HR: Park Byung-ho, Kiwoom (33)
RBI: Jerry Sands, Kiwoom (113)
R: Kim Ha-seong, Kiwoom (112)
SB: Park Chan-ho, Kia (39)
W: Josh Lindblom, Doosan (20)
SV: Ha Jae-hoon, SK (36)
ERA: Yang Hyeon-jong, Kia (2.29)
WHIP: Josh Lindblom, Doosan (1.00)
K: Josh Lindblom, Doosan (189)
IP: Josh Lindblom, Doosan (194.2)
All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, unless otherwise noted.