While we still wait for the first competitive baseball action of 2020 in the MLB, fans can finally get their home-run fix from Tuesday as the 2020 KBO League season gets underway. Following a delay to the start of the campaign due to the COVID-19 outbreak which has caused such high-level disruption, fans and players alike will doubtless be itching to take to the field to commence after the delay.
As it stands, each of the ten teams projects to play the full allocation of 144 regular season games, with the top 5 ranking sides progressing to various levels of the postseason. Differing from the American model, much greater emphasis is placed on the final regular season standings, with more series and games required to become overall champions the lower down the standings a team finishes. For example, while 2019 champions the Doosan Bears advanced directly to the Korean Series after they topped the table with the best overall regular season record, the LG Twins or NC Dinos would have been required to win a total of 11 games against four opponents to emerge triumphant. The Bears are looking to retain the title having swept the Kiwoom Heroes 4-0 last October.
Below is a brief summary of each team and their prospects for this season, including names you may recognise, players to watch and some information to help those fans discovering this league for the very first time. Enjoy!
The defending champions will be looking to match or better their 88-55-1 record from 2019 in the Regular Season this year having been such dominant and deserving victors last year, continuing their New England Patriots-like run of success. However, they will have to manage this without ace pitcher and 2019 KBO MVP Josh Lindblom, who has joined the Milwaukee Brewers this offseason having been the League Leader in Wins (20), Strikeouts (189) and WHIP (1.000). His replacement, Raúl Alcántara who has signed after reaching free agency with KT Wiz, certainly has big shoes to fill.
PLAYER TO WATCH: José Miguel Fernández. Formerly a minor league INF with the Dodgers and Angels, Fernández led the league in hits last year and is a key cornerstone of the Bears lineup.
The Eagles will be looking for improvement this year following a dismal 58-86 record last year, good for a 9th place regular season finish. This was a disappointing drop-off from their previous season’s 3rd place effort and a bounce back should not be discounted from the notoriously inconsistent Daejon-based outfit. The Eagles have kept hold of their three International players from last season, which should at least provide some level of continuity and they will be an interesting team to watch, particularly in the first weeks of the season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Chad Bell. The former Detroit Tiger will be looking to build on his efforts in 2019 and improve his stock even further this coming season. After a poor beginning to life in the big leagues in Detroit, where he went 0-4 with a 7.11 ERA in 31 appearances out of the bullpen, Bell has attempted to rebuild his career in the KBO as a starter and began to show signs of life last season. He was 11-10 with a 3.50 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 177.1 innings in 2019, no disgrace in a losing team, and should be expected to build on that in 2020 to solidify himself as the Eagles’ trustworthy pitcher atop their rotation.
As the most successful team in Korean baseball history, the Tigers will be looking to put successive losing seasons behind them in 2020 and emulate their Korean Series victory of 2017. There are signs of a good team to be found from 2019, with the speed of Park Chan-Ho on the basepaths (39 stolen bases in 2019) and their experienced ace and 2017 KBO MVP Yang Hyeon-Jong, who has been a part of the Tigers organisation since 2007, so the Tigers must be respected ahead of the upcoming campaign in spite of their inadequacy of late.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Aaron Brooks. After finishing the 2019 MLB season with the hapless Baltimore Orioles, Brooks was released from his contract to bolster the Tigers’ rotation for the coming season. He previously spent time with the Royals and the Athletics, his career statistics in America showing a 9-13 record with a 6.49 ERA. It will be interesting to see how his form translates to the KBO over his first starts, as a strong showing from him this campaign could prove to be a major factor in whether the Tigers are successful.
Formerly known as the Nexen Heroes due to naming rights deals, the Heroes will be looking to go one better than last year’s runners up effort in the Korean Series. Being swept by the Bears may not have been the way they wanted their season to end; however their 86-57-1 record of 2019 was no disgrace, and they will fancy their chances of reaching the playoffs for the third year in succession. Three separate Heroes hitters led the league in HR, RBI and Runs last year in Park Byung-Ho (33), Jerry Sands (113) and Kim Ha-Seong (112) respectively, their collective ERA as a team was a very low 3.60, and it would not take a leap of faith to see the Heroes going one better this year.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Kim Sang-Su. The 32 year old reliever led the year in Holds last season with 40 and while every baseball fan knows that bullpens can be volatile, a strong bullpen will be essential if the Heroes are to emulate their success of last season and Kim could well play a big role in that.
An expansion franchise who joined the KBO in 2015, Wiz only just missed out on the playoffs in 2019 and will be looking to go one better this time around. This continued the steady season-on-season improvement of this young team, recording their highest ever number of wins with 71 and would be an easy team to root for for those who like an underdog story!
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jae-Gyun Hwang. Having spent a few months with the San Francisco Giants in 2017, Hwang returned to the KBO on a four-year, $7.9m contract with the team. This will be his third year of the competitive infielder’s deal and he is without a doubt a fun player to watch, who will be looking to add significantly to the 153 home runs he has hit in his KBO career up to now.
The Twins, based in the capital city of Seoul, are one of the most popular teams in the KBO and command the highest average attendance of any team in the league. Last season’s campaign saw them triumph in the wildcard game against the Dinos, but fall short in the Semi-Playoff, losing in 4 to the Heroes. Having lost Tommy Joseph to the MLB, there will be even greater emphasis on the likes of Hyun-Soo Kim, who some may recognise from his time in the MLB with the Phillies and Orioles, among others to ensure their run production is good enough to compete at the top end of the league this year.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Casey Kelly. A former first round pick for the Boston Red Sox, Kelly has resigned for the 2020 season after a successful first season in the KBO, going 14-12 with a 2.55 ERA and 126 strikeouts. At the age of 30, there is no reason why Kelly can’t regain a spot on a Major League roster for 2021 if he performs to a high standard this season and therefore should be an exciting player to watch pitch throughout 2020.
The Giants, holders of the wooden spoon following a dismal 2019 campaign, will be comforting themselves that the only way is up for 2020. Utility man Jacob Wilson and pitcher Brooks Raley have returned to the MLB during the offseason, but a core of useful players remains to provide enough hope that last season may have been a monumental blip as opposed to a sign of further suffering. A key part of that may be Dan Strailly, a former Billy Beane draft pick who has signed a 1-year contract for 2020 after electing free agency. His 4.56 career ERA in the MLB is far from terrible and he will be another interesting player to watch in terms of the transition to the Korean game.
PLAYER TO WATCH: As a long-suffering Seattle Mariners fan myself, the Giants will provide an interesting spectacle as former 1B Dae-Ho Lee has served as a mainstay in their lineup. Described recently as ‘the Albert Pujols of the KBO’, he is coming off a quite horrific 2019 in which he failed to pass 20 home runs for the first time in 10 years, and it will be one of the KBO’s most publicised stories as to whether he can return to the levels he could reach as recently as 2018, when he racked up 37 homers batting .333.
Another recent franchise established as recently as 2011, the Dinos lost out in the wildcard game of 2019 which showed a superb response from their wooden spoon effort of 2018. Whether or not they can reproduce this form is unknown, but their American pitcher Drew Rucinski will no doubt have an influence on their success, as will outfielder Aaron Altherr, who is looking to rebuild his career with the Dinos following spells with the Phillies, Giants and Mets.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Yang Eui-Ji. The star catcher of the KBO will do incredibly well to match his numbers of 2019, leading the league in Batting Average, OBP and Slugging Percentage and astounding fans with his approach at the plate. A slash line of .354/.438/.574 highlighted him as the team’s talisman, and he can add another hugely successful season in 2020 to go with three Golden Gloves and a Korean Series MVP award he won during his time with the Doosan Bears.
While they may be the most successful KBO team of the 21st Century, the eight-time Korean Series winners are looking to 2020 in order to arrest one of the poorest runs in their franchise’s history.
Since losing in 5 games in the 2015 Korean Series to the Doosan Bears, the Lions have failed to appear in a single playoff game, leaving supporters restless and players anxious to bring success back to Daegu. Having won the Korean Series 7 times between 2002 and 2014, supporters could be forgiven for seeing this time as a major drought, given the comparative years of flush success previously. Improvement on last season’s 8th placed finish will be spread across the team, with the pitching staff weakened by the departure of Tim Adleman back to the MLB to join the Detroit Tigers and the infield weakened also through the departure of Darin Ruf to San Francisco.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Tyler Saladino. The likeable infielder will embark on his first season in the KBO following spells with the White Sox, for whom he made 172 appearances, and more recently the Brewers in the MLB. Eyes on both sides of the Pacific will be on him as he looks to make an impression in Korea which can transcend his .222 career batting average in the Majors.
The tenth and final member of the KBO is the Incheon-based Wyverns, who showed such magnificent regular season form in 2020 before failing to reproduce this in the postseason, being swept aside by the Heroes. Nonetheless, with a regular season record that matched the efforts of eventual champions the Bears and having won their fourth Korean Series of the century just two years ago, hopes are high amongst the well-supported Wyverns that they can compete at the top end of the KBO yet again in 2020.
Their roster looks strong, with Ha-Jae Hoon leading the league in saves last season out of the bullpen and the lineup bolstered by veteran former MLB journeyman RF Jamie Romak, who is just three home runs shy of 100 career long balls in the KBO prior to the start of this season. It would take a fool to write off the Wyverns who have, like rivals the Bears, been there and done it so often in recent years. Can they return to the top table in 2020?
PLAYER TO WATCH: Nick Kingham. The 28 year old right hander has signed a one-year contract with the Wyverns following a disappointing start to his MLB career fluctuating between the starting rotation and the bullpen at the Pirates and the Blue Jays. He is yet another player who will be hoping a strong season in the KBO and a better grasp on each of his mechanics and his mental state could lead to another Major League contract for 2021.