The KBO season is slated to kick off on Tuesday, May 5, and Pitcher List has you covered on everything you need to know to get you ready. Below you’ll find a breakdown of all 10 teams — including each team’s best hitter, pitcher, some fun facts and MLB comps. You’ll also find resources for learning more about the KBO, information on where you can watch the games, a GIF randomizer to help you choose your favorite team, and more! Before we begin on the team breakdowns, let’s break down the KBO as a league.
Baseball was first spread to the Korean Peninsula by Western missionaries as early as the late 19th century. In the decades to follow, American major leaguers would play exhibition tours across eastern Asia to promote the game. For many years, Korean baseball existed only as amateur teams and informal leagues, often playing against teams in the more reputable Japanese baseball scene.
In 1981, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) was established to govern the impending professional sport. Six teams were founded in 1982 for the first Korea Baseball Championship, known today as the KBO League. While teams are typically named after their sponsoring corporation rather than their home city, local pride plays a huge role in sports fandom. The inaugural six teams were:
- The Doosan Bears, originally known as the OB Bears. Originally based in Daejeon, but moved to Seoul in 1985.
- The LG Twins, originally called MBC Chungyong, based in the South Korean capital of Seoul.
- The Kia Tigers, formerly known as the Haitai Tigers, based in the city of Gwangju.
- The Lotte Giants, based in Busan.
- The Kiwoom Heroes, who started as the Sammi Superstars, went through several name changes, a full disbandment and refounding, and several location changes, and are now based in Seoul.
- The Samsung Lions, based in Daegu.
In the decades since, the league has expanded to ten teams. Like all professional sports leagues, several teams have been founded, disbanded, moved, or completely reformed over the course of the league’s history. Today, the four teams in addition to the six above are:
- The Hanwha Eagles, established in 1985 as the Binggrae Eagles in Daejeon to replace the departing Bears.
- The SK Wyverns, created in 2000 to replace the dissolved Ssangbangwool Raiders (while no formal connection exists between the two teams, most Raiders players went on to join the new Wyverns team), based in Incheon.
- The NC Dinos, based out of Changwon, were established in 2011 and joined the KBO League in 2013.
- KT Wiz were founded in 2013 and joined the KBO League in 2015, based out of Suwon.
In addition to the KBO League, which represents the highest level of professional baseball in South Korea, the KBO also created a second-tier league in 1990 to serve as a farm system for the KBO League. Since 2008, it has been called the KBO Futures League, and consists of 12 teams divided into two divisions.
With only 10 teams, the KBO has no organization by division or league, meaning over the course of the 144-game regular season, each team plays each other team exactly 16 times. Like the MLB, the KBO holds an All-Star Game partway through the season in July. The best players from the ten teams are arbitrarily divided into two groups for the game: the Dream All-Stars (consisting of players from Doosan, KT, Lotte, Samsung, and SK) and the Nanum All-Stars (with players from Kia, Hanwha, LG, NC, and Kiwoom).
At the end of the regular season, the top five teams qualify for the playoffs. The better the team, the better their bye – meaning the first-place team from the regular season gets an automatic spot in the Korean Series (the KBO championship series). Talk about adding incentive for every single one of those 144 games in the regular season, huh? The playoffs begin with the fourth- and fifth-place teams playing a best-of-three, with the fourth-place team starting with a built-in 1-0 advantage. The winner takes on the third-place team in a best-of-five, and the winner of that series faces the second place team in another best-of-five. The winning team takes on the first-place team in the Korean Series, played as a best-of-seven. In 2019, the Doosan Bears won the regular season (via a tiebreak with the SK Wyverns) and played only four postseason games on their way to the league title, sweeping the Kiwoom Heroes in four games.
The KBO has a variety of additional rules that differentiate it from the MLB. It also has new rules coming into place as early as next year that will increase the similarities with MLB.
- Like the AL, the KBO employs a DH instead of requiring pitchers to bat.
- Only three foreign (i.e. non-Korean) players can be signed by any team (raised from two in 2014), though only two of these three can play in a given game. Beginning in 2020, however, all three foreign players can play in a single game.
- In the regular season, all games have a 12-inning limit.
- In the playoffs, games have a 15-inning limit. If a postseason game ends in an official tie, it essentially does not count, and is replayed in full.
- Starting in 2020, if the two teams are tied for first place at the end of the regular season, they play an additional game to determine the regular season champion. Previously, this was determined by head-to-head record (hence why the Doosan Bears were declared regular-season champions in 2019 despite matching their 88-55 record with the SK Wyverns – the Bears won the regular-season 16-game series 9-7). If three or more teams tie for first, the regular-season champion is decided by head-to-head record.
- The injured list (10- , 15- , or 30-day limits) will be introduced to the KBO in 2020.
- A salary cap will go into effect in 2023.
Style of Play
The KBO has been known as a flashy, high-powered offensive league with home runs, bat flips, and crazy first pitches. However, while the MLB has been making changes to increase offense, the KBO is doing the opposite.
In 2017, the KBO tweaked the strike zone to make it, in practice, larger. This achieved its goal of increasing strikes and making the league more pitcher-friendly, as well as shortening the average length of games.
The biggest change, however, was in 2019, when the KBO “de-juiced” its baseball to decrease the coefficient of restitution (COR) to a level closer to that of the Japanese NPB. While still higher than the MLB COR, the change had the desired effect of dampening power numbers across the board in the KBO. The change will continue into 2020, meaning the glory days of bat flip artistry in the KBO may be a thing of the past (or perhaps, the increased rarity drives it to new heights).
However, if you’re desperate for dingers, don’t despair – despite the change, the KBO still remains above-average in offense output compared to the MLB:
One of the inaugural six teams when the KBO League was founded in 1982, the OB Bears were based in Daejeon and won the very first championship of the KBO League. A few years later, the Bears moved to Seoul, where they’ve remained ever since, sharing their home stadium with another of the inaugural six (the LG Twins), establishing what is possibly the league’s biggest rivalry. After Oriental Brewery (OB) was sold to InBev, the Doosan group (who previously owned OB) changed the team name to the Doosan Bears in 1999.
Despite winning the inaugural championship of the KBO League, the Bears had only mediocre success for several decades after, winning twice more in 1995 and 2001. Recently, the Doosan Bears have struck gold – the Bears have played every single Korean Series (i.e. the championship series of the league) in the last five years, winning three of the five, including last year. Due to their lengthy history, location in Seoul, prominent rivalry with their neighboring team, and recent dominance, the Doosan Bears are one of the most popular teams in South Korea.
In 2019, the Bears finished the 2019 regular season tied for first place with a 88-55 record, but won the tiebreak (determined by head-to-head record) over the second-place SK Wyverns. As such, they won an automatic spot in the championship series where they swept the Kiwoom Heroes in four games. While the Heroes were the top offensive team in the league in 2019, the Bears were probably the next best, finishing in second in runs scored with 736 (over five runs per game) due in part to their league-leading .355 OBP, and in spite of their bottom-half power numbers. The Bears had a top tier pitching staff as well, though like their lack of offensive power, they had a remarkably un-flashy lack of strikeouts, ending up in ninth place in total strikeouts. In most categories, however, they finished at the top (or very near it!), including in WHIP, ER allowed, QS, and opponent AVG.
Expectations are clearly high for the Doosan Bears going into 2020. However, they face some serious obstacles with the loss of league star Josh Lindblom to the Milwaukee Brewers. With an aging squad (only one returning starter under the age of 30), the Bears are going to be heavily reliant on young, unproven talent if they want a shot at repeating.
Best Hitter: José Miguel Fernandez
Leading the league in hits in 2019 was Doosan’s José Miguel Fernández, a foreigner who played 36 games for the Los Angeles Angels back in 2018. Fernández led the Bears in most offensive categories, slashing .344/.409/.483 through all 144 games of the KBO season as the Bears’ regular DH. While only a decent source of power, the 32-year-old should remain a reliable source of hits in 2020, alongside stellar plate discipline, boasting an 8.4% strikeout rate and a 9.5% walk rate in 2019. Other sources of offense for the 2020 Bears include their primary power source Jae Il Oh (leading the 2019 roster with 102 RBI, .495 SLG, and 21 HR, all of which rank in the top 10 of the league) and 2018 MVP Jae Hwan Kim, though he seems unlikely to repeat his three-year run from 2016-2018 where he assembled a 1.000+ OPS each season.
Best Pitcher: Hee Kwan Yoo
In 2019, the Bears’ best pitcher was undoubtedly Josh Lindblom, who won the Choi Dong-won award (the KBO’s Cy Young equivalent) in both 2018 and 2019, and took home the league MVP in 2019 with league-leading numbers in wins, strikeouts, WHIP, K/BB, and opponent AVG, and finishing second in ERA on the season. Unfortunately for Doosan, Lindblom signed a three-year deal with the Milwaukee Brewers in December, dealing a massive blow to the Bears’ 2020 rotation. They also lost starter Seth Frankoff, who had injury issues over the year but still put together a 3.61 ERA through 117.1 IP. Much of the new responsibility will fall on the next two rotation arms for the Bears: the reliable 33-year-old southpaw Hee Kwan Yoo who finished with 3.25 ERA on the season, good for tenth-best in the league despite only an 11-8 record, and 21-year-old Young Ha Lee, who finished with a 3.64 ERA and a considerably higher strikeout (and walk) count than Yoo on his way to a 17-4 record. The Bears also have two strong relievers who split saves nearly evenly in 2019: righty Hyoung Beom Lee, who finished with a strong 2.66 ERA, and lefty Deok Ju Ham, who notched a powerful 7.9 K/9 in 2019. It’s unclear who will step up in 2020, but there will undoubtedly be a huge void to fill with Lindblom’s departure. In addition, keep an eye on foreigners Chris Flexen (who pitched 68 innings in the majors for the Mets from 2017-19, but showed flashes of potential in the minors) and Raul Alcántara (who pitched to a 4.01 ERA for the KT Wiz in 2019 and was described as “the KBO’s Kyle Hendricks” by Ben Clemens at FanGraphs), both signed by Doosan in the offseason.
Fun Facts About the Doosan Bears:
- Club was founded in 1982 as the OB Bears, with the Oriental Brewery as their owners.
- Won the first ever Korean baseball league championship.
- Have five distinct fan event days: Bear’s Day, general fan appreciation; Queen’s Day, female fan’s appreciation day; Player’s Day, players wear franchise’s original jersey; Mr. Doo Day, male fan’s appreciation day; and Worker’s Day, customized event for salaried workers.
Most Similar MLB Team: Washington Nationals
Historically, the Doosan Bears are one of the most popular and successful teams of the KBO who have been around since the beginning, likening a comparison to MLB traditional powerhouses like the Yankees or Cardinals. The Bears have boasted a strong rotation but face a recent loss of talent and will need to rely on aging stars and unproven talent in 2020 more than they did in 2019, putting them more in line with a team like the Nationals, Cubs, or Giants of a few years ago whose window may be starting to close.
— Dylan Burris
The NC Dinos, founded in 2011, were originally members of the Freedom Division of the Korea Baseball Futures League, which serves as a non-affiliated farm system for Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). In 2012, KBO approved the Dinos’ admission into the KBO, where they have played since 2013. The Dinos are unique in that they are a newer team, but their owner Kim Taek-jin is the founder of NCSoft, which allows them to be active in courting marquee free agents.
The Dinos finished in the top half in 2019, ranking fifth of 10 teams, going 73-69 (two ties). The Dinos purportedly have a reputation as an analytic-friendly team. This forward-thinking approach is supported by the Dinos’ hiring of Swiss Army knife front office member Patrick Bourgo, a SABR member who serves as the lone employee in KBO whose role is specifically to help foreign players adapt to Korea and bridge cultural barriers that have deterred previous foreign players.
One of my favorite things about the Dinos is that they are the former employer of Eric Thames. During his time in Korea, Thames was referred to as God. (Seriously. Capital-G God.) And for good reason! Thames hit .349/.457/.721 with 124 home runs during his three-year stint in the KBO. He even tacked on 40 stolen bases in 2015, just for good measure. It’s one of my favorite stories in baseball. When he returned to the MLB, he had one of the most ridiculous Aprils in recent memory (.345/.466/.810, 11 home runs), before essentially becoming a solid platoon bat.
This wasn’t with the Dinos, but this is why I’ve rooted for Thames since 2012, and why I have picked the Dinos as my KBO team:
— Michael Ajeto 🇵🇭 (@dysthymikey) January 6, 2020
The best walk-off interview I have ever seen.
Best Hitter: Eui-ji Yang
The Dinos have an assemblage of talent on their team perhaps led by Eui-ji Yang. Yang was poached from the Doosan Bears after 2018, and in 2019, he rewarded the Dinos by leading the KBO in WAR while slashing .354/.438/.574 — all despite playing just 118 games. It’s almost like there’s a reason he received one of the largest free agent contracts in the history of the KBO. He is 32 years old, but he’s hard not to root for — especially because he plays the game with the lightheartedness of players like Adrian Beltre:
The Showman…Yang Eui-ji
— Dan Kurtz (@MyKBO) September 22, 2018
- Arguably the best player on the team, Sung-bum Na played just 23 games last season due to a knee injury. Na has been a fixture in the Dinos’ lineup since they joined the KBO in 2013, with a career triple slash of .316/.386/.534, racking up 145 home runs since then. Yasmani Grandal has since departed the Brewers, but if Grandal is Yang, then Na is Christian Yelich — just with fewer steals and lesser defense.
- Minwoo Park has also been a stalwart member of the Dinos’ lineup since 2013. Park relies on spraying the ball, not power. Since 2013, he has just 16 home runs, but a .327/.409/.426 triple slash and 171 stolen bases. Park finished in the top ten in WAR for hitters, ranking ninth with a 4.7 WAR.
- Once a trendy breakout candidate, Aaron Altherr’s near-30% strikeout percentage didn’t work out in the MLB, and so he’s taking his talents to the NC Dinos. Altherr already looked like a more disciplined hitter in his 28-game sample in Triple-A with the Mets in 2019. Like many power hitters who have slipped away to the KBO, there’s a solid chance he thrives.
Best Pitcher: Chang-mo Koo
Chang-mo Koo stymied hitters to the tune of a 3.20 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 114 strikeouts over 107.0 innings. His 9.59 K/9 led the league, but his 3.80 FIP suggests he benefited from some good fortune on the year. Regardless, he was a top-20 pitcher by WAR, despite pitching significantly fewer innings than all pitchers above him.
- Drew Rucinski will be getting the ball on Opening Day, and that’s because he was one of the best pitchers in the KBO last year. Over 177.1 innings, Rucinski posted a 3.05 ERA and 3.6 WAR (good for 12th in the KBO) with an approach that hinges on a pitch-to-contact approach that is popular in the KBO. You needn’t look further than his 6.04 K/9 in 2019 to know he goes about his business in a different manner than pitchers like Koo.
- While Mike Wright had a rather lackluster career in the MLB (6.00 ERA, -0.2 WAR), the 30-year-old looks to improve from a middling MLB pitcher to a domineering force in the KBO.
Fun Facts About the NC Dinos:
- Led the KBO in home runs in 2019.
- Attendance was down for virtually every club in 2019. Except for the NC Dinos, who saw a 60% boost.
- Their mascot, Dandi the Tyrannosaurus, may just be the KBO’s best mascot.
Most Similar MLB Team: Milwaukee Brewers
Progressive front offices, similar colors, and oh, Thames has played for them both! (The Dinos seem more wont to bullying teams in free agency, but this seems like a decent enough comparison.)
— Michael Ajeto
The Lotte Giants are located in Busan (the second-largest city in South Korea) and are one of the original KBO teams. They have won two championships (1984 and 1992) and have only made the playoffs six times since the turn of the century. Most recently was in 2017, when they finished third in the league but lost in the first round to the NC Dinos. Their all-time winning percentage is .471, but they remain one of the most popular teams in the KBO. According to an article from the Yonhap News Agency in March of 2019, the Giants topped Gallup popularity polls from 2008-2013 and appeared back on top in 2018. In 2019, they were ranked as the second most-popular team, but they were only one percent behind the Hanwha Eagles.
One of the reasons I picked the Lotte Giants to cover was that they were the worst team in the league in 2019 by about 10 games. Being an Angels, Nets, and Chargers fan, I have become quite familiar with disappointment. That made the Lotte Giants a perfect fit for my familiarity with thinking and writing about struggling teams. Despite their 2019 record, the Giants seemed to be a little unlucky and should have performed better. Their .340 winning percentage was below their expected winning percentage by .036 points (a league-worst .376). They scored fewer runs per game and allowed more runs per game than any team in the KBO. Their team FIP was better than three other teams, and with the additions of Adrian Sampson and Dan Straily, they could move further up the leaderboard. Regardless, 2019 was a year to forget for the Giants. but 2020 is shaping up to be a much-improved season.
Best Hitter: Jeon Jun-woo
In 2019, the Giants struggled in all areas of the game. They had the lowest weighted on-base average (wOBA) in the KBO. Their position players only accumulated 6.57 WAR over the whole season. 34-year-old left fielder Jeon Jun-woo was their best hitter in 2019, posting 22 homers, an .840 OPS, and 3.84 WAR. Jeon Jun-woo was a sensation for the Giants the previous year, when he recorded 33 homers, a .992 OPS, and 5.9 WAR. The slight dip in production from 2018 to 2019 can mostly be attributed to the KBO de-juicing the ball. A good comp for Jun-woo is, ironically, South Korea native Shin-Soo Choo. The two of them are older sluggers who have aged quite gracefully and currently play for teams that have performed relatively poorly in recent years. Another player worth mentioning is Dixon Machado, who you might remember from his stint with the Tigers from 2015-2018. Machado could not keep up with big-league pitching, but could find success as an above-average defensive infielder. In 2019 with the Cubs, he posted a 107 wRC+ in Triple-A, and could end up being the best position player on the Giants at only 28 years old.
Best Pitcher: Dan Straily
The Giants bolstered their rotation prior to the 2020 season by adding Adrian Sampson (Rangers, 2019) and Dan Straily (Seemingly every MLB team). Straily is entering his age-31 season, and could be primed to dominate the KBO, especially with a de-juiced ball. Straily has trouble keeping the ball out of the air, but KBO hitters might adjust to the de-juice ball by trying to put the ball in play as opposed to the MLB style of swinging for the fences. He has had relative success getting swings and misses in the big leagues, with strikeout rates between 18-22% from 2012-2018. Sampson does not have as big a track record as Straily’s, but is younger and likely has a higher KBO ceiling. He threw 125 innings for the Rangers in 2019, and it did not go well by MLB standards. He has not had a K rate above 20% at any level since 2012 in rookie ball. He has impeccable control, with a walk rate hovering between 2 and 4% throughout the high minors. That type of control is comparable to Indians ace Shane Bieber. He does not have the swing-and-miss stuff like Bieber does, which is why he is not currently employed by a major league team. If the Giants can load a solid defense behind him, he could end up being their best pitcher.
Fun Facts About the Lotte Giants:
Something fun about the Giants is they have Dae-ho Lee on their roster! If you do not remember him, that’s okay: He had a stint with the Mariners in 2016 where he posted a .740 OPS in 317 PA before returning to Korea to play for his hometown Giants. Dae-ho Lee was born in Busan, went to high school in Busan, and while in the KBO has only played for the Giants, who, as previously mentioned, are the only team that plays in Busan. He was born in 1982, which was the year the KBO was formed, and began playing for the Giants at age 19 in 2001. When he was younger, he played first and third base, but has been stuck at first for the latter part of his career. Between 2005 and 2011, he never had an OPS below .800, and posted three seasons with an OPS above 1.000. This stretch included two Korean Triple Crowns (2006 and 2010) and an MVP in 2010. In 2012, he went to play in the JPL (Japanese Pacific League) where he won two championships while posting solid numbers. He signed with the Mariners in 2016, and despite relative success in the big leagues, he returned to the KBO, signing a four-year, $12.9M contract with his hometown Giants. In his time since returning, he has home run totals of 34, 37, and 16. Entering his age-38 season and the final year of his contract, this could be the end for the veteran. He seems to be an important part of Giants history, and his story deserves attention from all baseball fans.
Most Similar MLB Team: San Francisco Giants
The best players on both the San Francisco and Lotte Giants seem to be veterans mixed with some younger fringe players with some promise. The Lotte Giants’ best hitters are all above the age of 33, and the same can be said of our native Giants. Lotte has seen much less recent success than San Francisco, but in terms of current expectations and outlook, the two seem mighty familiar.
— Joe Garino
The Kiwoom Heroes share their home base of Seoul with the Doosan Bears and the LG Twins. Seoul is the largest metropolis in South Korea (fourth largest in the world with over 9.7 million people) and is the capital city of South Korea. In many ways, it has been one of Asia’s best-kept secrets. Museums, palaces, temples, monuments, and numerous parks paint a wonderful picture of Seoul as a center for culture and sports. In the past, it has hosted the 1988 Olympic Games, was a 2002 host city for the World Cup, and is the home of the world headquarters for Taekwando, South Korea’s national sport.
Last year, the Heroes shocked everyone by making it all the way to the Korean Series where they were swept in four games by the Doosan Bears. That’s a huge success for the Heroes and as one of the youngest teams in the league marks them as a team to watch for years to come.
Best Hitter: Byung Ho Park
You may remember Byung Ho Park from a few years ago (2016) when he came over to the majors with the Minnesota Twins. At the time, the ball-walloping first baseman was coming off an astonishing 53 HR season (in just 140 games!) with enough epic bat flips to make your head explode with pure unadulterated baseball joy:
I remember being so incredibly excited to see this bat-tossing machine take the U.S. by storm, but unfortunately, recognizing the lameness that permeates American baseball, we never got the bat flips that were promised. Upon returning to the KBO in 2018, though, he picked up right where he left off by blasting 43 home runs with an insane .345 AVG and 112 RBI in just 113 games. Between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, though, the KBO de-juiced their ball and he responded by leading the league with 33 HR, 98 RBI, and 92 runs in a mere 122 games. Despite the deadened ball, he still had a .958 OPS and nearly half his hits went for extra bases. In fact, in every year of his six-year KBO career, he has either led the league in homers (five times) or finished second. That’s the kind of power we’ve only seen out of the likes of Trout, Pujols, or Bonds. In case you wonder if he’s still got it, I’ll leave you with this montage of all 33 of his home runs from 2019:
By the way, if you wonder why I love the KBO so much, watch the above montage with the volume on and revel in how excited the announcers and crowd get for every home run. There’s nothing quite like it.
Best Pitcher: Jake Brigham
Hailing originally out Winter Garden, Florida, Brigham was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the sixth round of the 2006 MLB draft. He bounced around from the Rangers to the Cubs, back to the Rangers, then to the Pirates, before finally making his MLB debut in 2015 with the Braves. After struggling with Atlanta, he never saw the majors again, moving first to Japan, then back to the MiLB until he finally ended up finding a home in the KBO with Kiwoom in 2017. He was average for his first two seasons in the KBO, but really found his groove in 2019, putting up a fantastic 2.96 ERA with a 3.27 FIP over 158.1 IP. His 7.39 K/9 and 2.61 BB/9 are typical of the KBO, and were really solid marks while his 0.28 HR/9 was unreal. The best video I could find of his pitching was from his 2018 debut:
It’ll be interesting to see if Brigham can replicate his 2019 season again, but has to assume that if he can keep his K/9 and his BB/9 at roughly the same levels, and the ball continues to be dead, then he should be Kiwoom’s best pitcher again in 2020 as well.
Fun Facts About the Kiwoom Heroes:
- They have three mascots, which you can see here, including an adorable robot named DomDoml, whose head was modeled after their stadium, the gorgeous Gocheok Sky Dome. Then, after making the playoffs two years in a row, they debuted Dongeuli in 2015, a pixie-like female mascot with batlike earflaps on her helmet aimed at female fans and children. Finally, in that same year, they also brought out Tuckdori, who was a former mascot years ago. All three are fantastic mascots and the moment I can figure out how to buy a shirt with DomDoml on it, I will have like 15 of them.
- They are the only team in the KBO not owned by a larger parent company.
- Officially reached the Korean Series for the first time in the history in 2019 after joining the league in 2008.
- Michelle Rodriguez once threw out a first pitch at a Heroes’ game and even whooped up on Tuckdori (but not on our precious DomDoml, I’d commit crimes for that sweet robot child).
Bonus Notes on Seoul:
I experience cities through their food, and from the sounds of it, Seoul is the perfect place for that approach. While there is plenty of excellent food in any of the ballparks in Seoul, you can also bring food into any of the ballparks and Seoul is a treasure trove for good food. Whether you favor bulgogi (Korean BBQ), bibimbap, or the best kimchi you’ll ever have, there is a wide variety of fantastic food options to choose from in Seoul, and that’s before you even get to the expansive selection of street food options you can find outside the ballpark. If you feel really adventurous, there are markets everywhere, and in particular, the Namdaemun Market is the oldest market in Seoul and covers 66,000 square meters!
Most Similar MLB Team: Tampa Bay Rays
Thanks to their lack of a larger parent company, Kiwoom has always had one of the lowest payrolls in the league, and 2019 was no different, as they had the third-lowest payroll. They were also one of the youngest teams in the league, which fits with the Rays’ focus on young players on controllable contracts. It’s not a perfect fit, as there’s no longer an aging slugger equivalent to Byung-Ho Park on the Rays, but otherwise it’s a really nice fit. In addition, the Heroes finished first in offense, but were also the third-best pitching team in the KBO, which fits nicely with the Rays balance of offense and pitching, even if the Rays aren’t quite as proficient on the offensive side of the ball. It’s a fun team that seemingly uses every resource available to it to find success.
— Daniel Port
Once upon a time, the Samsung Lions were the class of the KBO. In the early 2000s, the team won the Korean Series three out of five years, and more recently, the team went to six straight Korean Series and won four in a row between 2011 and 2014. However, since 2016, the team hasn’t had a winning season. In 2019, the team finished with a 60-83 record, and eighth out of ten teams. The team fired their manager, Han-so Kim, a longtime Lions player and coach who spent his entire baseball career as a Lion, both as a player and a coach, save for one season as a coach with Japan’s Yomiuri Giants, so this certainly wasn’t an easy decision for the team to make. Replacing him is Sam-young Heo, a former pitcher who made only four appearances for the team in the mid-1990s, but has since been a part of the team’s training and support staff, and more recently, was the head of the team’s data analysis department. The belief is that his work in his former role as the leader of the team’s data analysis should give him a good understanding of the team’s players and put them in a position to succeed, which shouldn’t be a foreign concept to fans of Major League Baseball.
The Lions’ home city is Daegu, which is the fourth-largest city in South Korea, and has the third-largest metropolitan area in the country with over 2.5 million residents. The city is about 238 kilometers, or about 150 miles away from Seoul. The city is the home of electronics giant Samsung, which also explains the team name. Outside of electronics, Daegu is also a heavy textile town, with fashion also being one of the city’s major industries. Daegu is considered the southern hub of the Korean peninsula, with Seoul representing the central hub and Pyongyang the north. Daegu is also known for its Buddhist landmarks, most notable of which is Gatbawi, which is one of the country’s largest tourist attractions, which attracts Buddhists from all over the world. The city also hosted three matches during the 2002 FIFA World Cup, in which South Korea shared host nation duties with Japan, with the South Korean team achieving their best-ever finish, finishing fourth in the tournament. Finally, the Lions’ home ballpark, Daegu Samsung Lions Park, opened for the 2016 season and seats 24,000. Upon my first look at the park, it reminded me a little bit of a smaller version of Dodger Stadium. The park replaced Daegu Baseball Stadium, which was the home of the Lions since their inception in 1982, and sat just 5,000 fans.
Best Hitter: Ja-wook Ko
In 2019, the Samsung Lions were seventh out of ten teams in runs scored at 4.32 runs per game. Last season, their best hitter was a player with Major League experience in Darin Ruf. Ruf, now 33 years old, most notably played in parts of five major league seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies from 2012 to 2016, and in his last taste of the majors, slashed just .205/.236/.337 in 89 plate appearances for a Phillies team that finished 71-91. Ruf then made the move abroad to Korea in 2017 and played there for three seasons with a career KBO .313/.404/.564 slash line. Even though 2019 was Ruf’s weakest season in the KBO, (although he still had a .911 OPS), his 22 home runs and 101 RBI still placed him inside the league’s top six and top five, respectively. Ruf was definitely the anchor of the Lions’ lineup last year, as the team’s next best hitter, Ja-wook Koo, had a .771 OPS. This surely played a part in their struggles last season, and unfortunately for them, Ruf is no longer in the league, as he was attempting to make a major league return in 2020, signing a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants and was perhaps playing his way to a roster spot with a 1.469 OPS through 28 spring at-bats prior to the shutdown.
It’s going to be a tough task to try and replace Ruf’s production, and while another former major leaguer, Tyler Saladino, has joined the team for 2020, he was more known for his defensive versatility than his bat during his time in the majors, so it seems that the Lions will need to look internally for other offensive contributors. Their best option in that case may come from the aforementioned Ja-wook Koo, who is going into his age-27 season, and has been an offensive anchor for the team prior to 2019. In his rookie season in 2015, he had a .349/.417/.534 slash line and followed it up with a .343/.420/.547 line at just 23 years old, and looked like one of the bright young hitters in the league, as he followed up his first two strong seasons with two consecutive .900-plus OPS seasons, before he saw a decline in 2019. A return to his pre-2019 performance would make him a fine replacement for Ruf, and once again become an anchor for this lineup. Another player to watch is second-year player Min-gyu Kong, who, at just 19 in his rookie season, was third on the team in OPS, with a .245/.333/.434 slash line. For a team like the Lions that’s trying to get younger, improvement and development in their youngsters will be crucial for their future.
Best Pitcher: Jyung-hyun Baek
Last season, the Lions were the third-worst team in terms of runs allowed per game, giving up 5.08 per game. Their best starting pitcher in 2019 was Jung-hyun Baek, who had a 4.24 ERA in 28 games pitched and 157 innings. He’s been pitching for the Lions since he was just 19 in 2007, and will be turning 33 in July. While he doesn’t quite fit in with their youth movement, there is something to be said about having stability in the rotation, and Jung-hyun Baek should be able to provide that while the younger pitchers start to get their feet wet. He has only been a full-time starting pitcher for two seasons now. During his time as a relief pitcher, he frequently had strikeout-per-nine rates pushing double digits, but as expected, as a starter those numbers have dropped. In 2019 he posted a K/9 rate of just 4.7, which for context is nearly identical to Brett Anderson’s 4.6 mark last season in the majors. Anderson was able to make it work last season with a 3.89 ERA, and Jung-hyun Baek was likewise able to make it work last season. The KBO is definitely a different league in terms of pitching results, so strikeout rates should be viewed a bit differently.
Also on the roster is former major leaguer Ben Lively, who joined the Lions for 57 innings in 2019, and will return for the 2020 season. Lively usually managed good strikeout rates during his time stateside, but walks were an issue, and what ultimately held him back as a pitcher. Lively is a pitcher who can certainly thrive in the KBO, as his good strikeout rates from his minor-league career did translate well to the KBO, with a 9.2 K/9 rate in his brief sample for the Lions. Lively could certainly end up being the best pitcher for the Lions, and the entire league this season, and could make a return to the majors at some point. Also on the roster and making his return to the KBO and the Lions is former major leaguer Seung-hwan Oh. Oh made his professional baseball debut with the Lions and pitched for them for nine seasons from 2005 to 2013 before moving to Japan, and eventually to the majors for four seasons. It’ll be a nice homecoming season for Oh, who will be turning 38 in July, but can hopefully provide some quality relief innings for the Lions in 2020.
Fun Facts About the Samsung Lions:
- First team to win the Pennant Race, Korean Series and Asian Series in the same year.
- Former Atlanta Brave Julio Franco was once a Samsung Lion.
Most Similar MLB Team: Detroit Tigers
The Samsung Lions are a former powerhouse that has fallen on tough times in recent years. This immediately made me think of the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers tried to sustain a winning and aging core the in hopes of another championship run, and have only fully embraced a rebuild in the past couple of years. The Lions also seem to be embracing a rebuild, and are hoping that the rebuild is nearing its end, although they still project to be towards the bottom of the standings again in 2020. The team should be more interesting than in years past as they start to filter in younger players that fans can hopefully see develop in front of their own eyes.
— Matt Wallach
The KBO League Kia Tigers (KIA 타이거즈) are based in Gwangju. If you measure success by the number of championships won, then the Tigers are incredibly successful, as they’ve been champions eleven times, the most of any KBO Team. Their last victory was in 2017. They have a strong and passionate fan base and I would know: I’ve been one since I visited Gwangju in 1996 and had the good fortune to watch them play at Gwangju Mudeung Baseball Stadium. During that late 1990s, I worked for a Korean tire company and had the pleasure of visiting Korea on occasion. On my first trip, a work colleague pointed at my Cleveland Indians hat then pointed to his Tigers hat and said, “I take you.” Tigers fans are some of the most passionate and knowledgeable baseball fans I have ever met, and even in Northeast Ohio, it is not uncommon to see a Kia Tigers hat from time to time and share a few kind words.
In 1996, they were known as the Hiatai Tigers, and were sold in Kia in 2001. As an original team when the KBO League was founded in 1982, the Tigers had been in the playoffs in 10 of the 14 years, winning the championship seven times at that time. They were the Yankees of South Korea if the Yankees were in the sixth-largest city in the United States. In the years since, the Tigers have won only four championships, in 1996, 1997, 2009, and 2017. Given the size of the town, one could say the Kia Tigers are much like the St. Louis Cardinals or Green Bay Packers. A passionate fanbase that is used to winning in a smaller town whose roots are in manufacturing.
The Tigers, despite their success, were a team that often financially struggled. They often lost their best players to other teams or other leagues. The Asian crisis of 1998 affected the team and caused Hiatai to sell the team to Kia. Even with the backing of Kia since 1995, they have only managed 10 playoff trips and four championships. Of course, as an Indians fan, I’ll take that type of struggling!
In 2019, the Tigers did … not so well. Despite having the league ERA leader, the team finished below .500 and near the bottom of the KBO League standings. Just two years removed from a championship, the Tigers decided to make some changes during the season and after. In 2019, manager Kim Ki-tai resigned and was replaced by Park Heung-sik. The struggles continued, and he too was replaced after the season with 2014 National League Manager of the Year Matt Williams.
Matt Williams does not have a bare cupboard. There are quite a number of established players on the team, including one of the best pitchers and hitters in the league.
Best Hitter: Ahn Chi-hong
The Tigers lost second baseman Ahn Chi-hong (안치홍) to the Lotte Giants. His numbers were affected by the “de-juicing” of the ball, but before that, he was in the position to take the best hitter title from Choi Hyeong-Woo (최형우). Choi Hyeong-Woo, while having a drop in his numbers, still managed a .300/.412/.485 slash line, with 17 home runs, 86 RBI, and about 4.5 WAR. The 36-year-old will be holding a lineup together featuring American Preston Tucker as the second-best hitter now. Matt Williams will have to find a way to manage a lineup that needs a bit of work.
Best Pitcher: Yang Hyeon-jong
Starting pitcher Yang Hyeon-jong (양현종) was the league MVP in 2017 and the league ERA leader in 2019. The left-hander uses four pitches, a four-seam fastball in the low 90s, high-80s slider, circle change, and a curveball. Hyeon-jong started his career in 2007 at 19 years old, and has become the crafty lefty and leader of the Tigers’ pitching staff. With the KBO “de-juicing” the ball in 2019, Yang Hyeon-jong had his best season since his MVP year. In his 29 starts, he was 16-8, with a 2.29 ERA, 165 strikeouts, 32 walks, and 7.4 WAR.
Americans Aaron Brooks and Drew Ganon will help give the Tigers one of the better starting rotations in the KBO League. The bullpen should be strong, too. Moon Kyeong Chan (문경찬) stepped in as the closer last year and saved 24 games while compiling a 1.31 ERA.
Fun Facts About the Kia Tigers:
- The KIA Tigers arrived in Terry Park in Fort Myers, Florida, for spring training. They were forced to extend their stay in the USA because of the extent of the coronavirus in South Korea.
- Former MLB player, Hee-Seop Choi (최희섭), who finished his baseball career on the Tigers, is back as a coach for the team.
- The Tigers have a fairly new stadium, The Gwangju-Kia Champions Field (광주 KIA 챔피언스 필드), which opened in 2014.
Most Similar MLB Team: Cleveland Indians
The Tigers 2020 campaign will likely feature strong pitching, but will like only go as far as their batting can take them.
— Mat Kovach
The LG Twins have been around since 1982 and have two Korean Series championships to their name, one in 1990 and one in 1994. But they haven’t been to the Korean Series since 2002, and have generally been a fringe playoff team (except for the 2003-2012 stretch where they missed the playoffs every year).
Last year, the Twins went 79-64, finishing the year fourth in the league, winning a Wild Card matchup against the NC Dinos but ultimately falling to the Kiwoom Heroes in the semi-final playoff.
Best Hitter: Hyun-Soo Kim or Chun-Woong Lee
Who the best hitter on the Twins is depends on what you’re looking for in a hitter. Hyun-Soo Kim you may remember from his brief stint with the Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies in 2016 and 2017. He never really had much success in the majors, finishing those two seasons slashing .271/.330/.399 with seven total home runs. But with the Twins, he’s been solid, slashing .304/.375/.437 with 11 home runs, 75 runs, and 82 RBI last year, essentially being what he was supposed to be in the MLB, a solid-average, good on-base, medium power guy.
But then there’s Chun-Woong Lee, who has absolutely no power to speak of, but can hit for a high average and is quite fast. Last year, Chun-Woong Lee slashed .308/.378/.374 with two home runs, 88 runs, 48 RBI, and 21 stolen bases. He’s essentially an ideal lead-off hitter, with a batting average last year that was good for 11th-best in the KBO.
It’s hard to determine who the best pitcher is in on the Twins, but it’s one of these two. Both Kelly and Wilson spent time in the major leagues, and both have had a lot of success with the Twins. Kelly floated around with the San Diego Padres and a couple of other teams, never really finding much success. He’s a guy whose best pitch is a major-league average fastball with an okay curveball. But in the KBO, Kelly has been good, pitching to a 2.55 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP over 180.1 innings last year; that ERA was good for the fourth-best in the KBO.
Meanwhile, Wilson spent a few years floating around the Orioles’ organization, never really doing a ton. But when his teammate Hyun-Soo Kim left for the KBO, Wilson joined him, and he’s been good. Last year, Wilson posted a 2.92 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over 185 innings, and similar to Kelly, he had one of the best ERAs in the league at sixth.
Fun Facts About the LG Twins:
They have a pretty dope fight song:
Most Similar MLB Team: New York Mets
The Twins share a stadium with the Doosan Bears who are one of the most dominant franchises in the KBO. If I’m thinking about a team that is often shadowed by a rival team in the same city — but also has an incredibly passionate fanbase — it’s hard not to immediately think of the New York Mets. Doesn’t hurt that they’re shaping up to have what will be one of the more dominant pitching staffs in the KBO, too.
— Ben Palmer
Located in Suwon, South Korea’s seventh-most populous city, the KT Wiz joined the KBO in 2015 after two seasons in the Futures League and understandably struggled. In fact, they finished in last place in the KBO in each of their first three seasons, topping out at 53 wins in 2016. But 2017 is where the losing ways stopped. An influx of MLB talent, which we’ll cover below, pushed the team to 59 wins in 2018, good for a 9th place finish, followed by a bump up to a sixth-place 71 wins in 2019. This is a young team on the rise; in 2019, the Wiz had the third-youngest lineup and the youngest pitching staff in the KBO.
Best Hitter: Baek-ho Kang
Baek-ho Kang emerged in the 2018 season, at age 18, winning the KBO Rookie of the Year as a left fielder; all he did to win it was hit .290/.356/.524 with a KBO rookie-record 29 homers. While his power did take a massive step back in 2019, going from a homer every 20 plate appearances to one every 38 in his sophomore campaign, power fell across the KBO as the league de-juiced baseballs league-wide. While that was happening, he improved just about everywhere else, raising his average to a .336 mark good for fourth-best in the KBO. He also cut his strikeout rate from 21.2% to 17.2%, and raised his walk rate from 8.9% to 12.1%. Typically, plate discipline adjustments like that don’t come at age 19, so it will be very exciting to see where he can take his game in 2020. Will the power return? Last year’s KBO HR leader, Byung-Ho Park knocked 33 out; can Baek-ho Kang turn in a Yelich like season, keeping his .330 average but complementing it with league-leading pop?
- Former Pirates and Braves prospect Mel Rojas Jr. has taken the KBO by storm since arriving with KT in 2017. Rojas has posted a .300 AVG in all three seasons, topping out at .322 in 2019. And he hasn’t only brought a contact approach; in 2018, Rojas has poked 85 homers and swiped 27 bags over two-and-a half seasons (he left for the peninsula halfway through 2017) after topping out at 10 homers in the minors in 2014 and 2016.
- After ten stellar seasons in the KBO, Jae-gyun Hwang tried to make it with the San Francisco Giants in 2017, but it just wasn’t for him, as he hit just .154 over 57 PAs at the big league level. He went back for the 2018 season, joining KT and hitting at least .280 with 20 home runs for the fourth consecutive season (in the KBO). The 32-year-old also has some wheels still, swiping 24 bags over the last two seasons.
In three MLB stints, William Cuevas could not get his walk rate under control, but he’s found his command in the KBO, cutting a career MLB 6.85 BB/9 to 3.08 in the 2019 KBO season, to the tune of a 3.62 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over 184 innings. There’s some concern under the surface in his 4.43 FIP and .257 BABIP, but he should still be able to return as an innings-eater for KT. MLB fans will recognize Despaigne’s unique name, but he left behind forgettable performances on the hill outside of a strong rookie campaign in San Diego. He posted a 9.45 ERA over 13.1 IP and decided to take things to the peninsula, signing a one-year deal with the Wiz this past December. It’ll be interesting to see if he can revitalize his game like so many former MLB-players before him.
- The Wiz are hurt by the departure of Raul Alcantara for Doosan after eating 172.2 IP for the Wiz last year. The team hopes Despaigne can fill the gaps.
- The team hopes for big steps forward from 21-year-old Min Kim and 23-year-old Jae-sung Bae in 2020. Both pitched at least 130 innings in 2019 but struggled to suppress contact and keep runners off-base.
Fun Fact About the KT Wiz:
- The franchise is less than a decade old and has played just five seasons in the KBO.
- The owners of the team also own KT Rolster, one of the world’s top Starcraft e-sports teams.
- Suwon, South Korea was previously home to the Hyundai Unicorns who were in the KBO from 1989 to 2007.
Most Similar MLB Team: Toronto Blue Jays
The Wiz are a young team with some very exciting players complemented by some veteran pitching. They’re used to being near the bottom of the league but are on the rise and could make a push to the top over the next few seasons.
— Dave Cherman
The 2018 KBO Champion SK Wyverns are my new favorite team. The team was formed in 2000 after the former team of the region, the Hyundai Unicorns, moved from Incheon to Suwon. Their first roster consisted mostly of players from the defunct Ssangbangwool Raiders team, who disbanded due to ownership bankruptcy. In the 20 seasons since, the Wyverns have four Korean Series titles to their name, and have appeared in the Korean Series an additional 4 times. In 20 years of existence, the Wyverns have made it to the championship series eight times. Considering my Yankee allegiance in the MLB, it’s hard for me not to admire a team that has made it to the finals 40% of the time.
Also, for what it’s worth, they have the coolest name in the KBO. Hands down. They easily could have named themselves the Dragons and called it a day. But they took it a step further and named themselves the Wyverns, which is far superior and much cooler than your boring, run-of-the-mill, four-legged dragon.
In 2019 the Wyverns posted an 88-55 (.615 win percentage) which was good for the best in the league, tied with their main rivals and eventual 2019 champion Doosan Bears. The Bears managed to eke past the Wyverns in the head to head season series 9-7, giving them the edge in the standings.
Losing out first place to Doosan proved quite important. The KBO playoffs run on a four-tier ladder system, where the top five teams qualify and the lowest two seeds play each other in a best-of-three game series to advance to the next round. By coming in first, the Bears secured a spot in the league’s final series called the Korean Series The Wyverns’ second-place finish allowed them to skip to what can be referred to as a semi-final called the Playoff Series. It was here that the 2019 season came to an end for our bipedal dragons, as they were promptly swept in three games by the Kiwoom Heroes. Kiwoom would eventually go on to be swept themselves in the Korean Series by Doosan. An inauspicious end to a great campaign for the SK Wyverns, but hope remains. They have had some crucial departures from their roster, but in 2020 the Wyverns hope to continue their three-year streak of playoff baseball in the KBO.
Best Hitter: Jeong Choi
While Canadian expat Jamie Romak certainly deserves some recognition, I’ve got to give the best hitter award to third baseman Jeong Choi. Jeong and Romak led the team with 29 home runs apiece, fairly impressive given the fact that power seems to be down across the league due to changes made to the ball. But after homers, Jeong really pulls away from the former major leaguer. Jeong led the team in both OBP (.399), and SLG (.519), while his .292 AVG trailed only the .323 clip of Jong-Wook Ko.
Despite some rumblings that he wanted to come to the MLB prior to the 2015 season, Jeong has spent his entire 15-year career with the Wyverns. Over that time period, he has rewarded them with 10 straight seasons of a .900+ OPS. Among active MLB players, only Albert Pujols has been able to pull off such a feat of prolonged dominance. In the field, Jeong has seen some action at first base and has made appearances at second, shortstop, catcher, and pitcher, but he has primarily called third base his home.
Entering his age-33 season, it will be interesting to see how his defense holds up. A transition across the diamond to first base is a common practice, but the aforementioned Romak has held down the position for the Wyverns over the last few seasons. In any case, the Wyverns and their fans are hoping for another excellent year out of their star third baseman.
Best Pitcher: Jae-hoon Ha
On the pitching side of things, the Wyverns lost a few key pieces during the offseason. In 2019, their best pitcher was most likely Gwang hyun-Kim. The 31-year-old left-hander was a force on the mound last year, starting 30 games and throwing 190.1 innings of 2.51 ERA ball. His 8.5 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 weren’t too shabby either. However, the MLB took notice, and the St. Louis Cardinals snatched him up on a two-year deal.
Former major leaguer Angel Sanchez also had a wonderful 2019 season, starting 28 games, good for 165 IP and a 2.62 ERA. Sanchez bounced around five different MLB farm systems before coming over to the KBO in 2018. Alas, the Wyverns will also be without him in 2020, as he secured a contract with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s NPB.
That brings us to yet another former major leaguer, reliever Jae-Hoon Ha. It has been quite an interesting career path for the South Korean product. He spent six years in the Cubs’ system as an outfielder, but never managed to break through to the big leagues. He then spent the 2016 season still as a position player with NPB’s Yakult Swallows for a brief 17 games. After two years away from the game, Jae-Hoon Ha returned and signed with the Wyverns, this time taking the mound and role of closer. In 2019, he led the league with 36 saves while posting a 9.8 K/9 and a 1.98 ERA. I love a good story, and it’s tough to beat the “failed MLB outfielder turned elite KBO closer” narrative. I can’t help but root for this guy.
It’s worth noting that the Wyverns signed former major leaguer Nick Kingham for 2020. Kingham failed to deliver on his prospect hype in Pittsburgh, and was unimpressive in Toronto as well. Sill only 28, Kingham will look to reinvent himself in Korea, and has been named the Wyvern’s Opening Day starter.
Fun Fact About the SK Wyverns:
- In 2018, the SK Wyverns became the first team in KBO history to win the Korean Series with a foreign born manager, Trey Hillman. For those of you who don’t know him, Hillman has had a world tour of coaching experience that has enshrined him in international baseball lore. I highly suggest you go read up on him.
Most Similar MLB Team: St. Louis Cardinals
This was a difficult decision to make. I wanted to highlight the Wyverns’ status as an “expansion team,” so my mind turned to the Diamondbacks. They both found themselves in their respective league’s championships in only their fourth year of existence, but the similarities dry up there. The Snakes simply haven’t had the sustained success that the Wyverns have.
So I scrapped the expansion team idea and came up with the St. Louis Cardinals. Much like the Redbirds, the Wyverns have been incredibly successful over the past two decades. Since 2000, both teams have made the playoffs more often than not. The Cardinals have failed to qualify for the postseason in only seven of the past 20 seasons, while the Wyverns have failed in eight.
In that same time span, the teams have also won half of the championships they’ve appeared in, with the Cards winning two of four and the Wyverns winning four of eight. Both of these clubs have been playing exceptional baseball for a sustained period of time. With some exceptions, they are each fixtures in their respective league’s playoffs.
But the comparisons don’t stop there, and they are not all rosy. The Cardinals were swept in the 2019 NLCS by the eventual champion Nationals. As mentioned earlier, the Wyverns were also swept in what is basically the KBO equivalent of the NLCS in 2019. As for a 2020 outlook, the Cardinals are still a well-equipped club, but play in a highly competitive division. The Brewers and Cubs are still capable teams, and the Cincinnati Reds are on the verge of competing. The NL Central crown is certainly possible, but not at all a lock. As for our Wyverns? They were nearly the top of their 10-team class in 2019, but have lost some very important players in Angel Sanchez and Gwang hyun-Kim. If Nick Kingham can fill the void they left, they could compete once again, but that remains to be seen.
— Liam Casey
Located about 90 miles south of Seoul in Daejeon, the Hanwha Eagles debuted in the KBO in 1986 as the seventh franchise to join the league. Their stadium — Hanwha Life Insurance Eagles Park, but also referred to as Hanbat and Eagles’ Park — is considered one of the most beautiful in the KBO and for good reason: Just look at the view. Theirs is an organization filled with a rich history. They were the first Korean baseball team to advance to the playoffs three years in a row, were an integral part of the national team that reached the WBC final four in 2006, and produced the first ever KBO player to go directly to the MLB: Hyun-jin Ryu. While the Eagles have been to the Korean Series six times, they’ve only won once (1999).
The Eagles have seen some peaks and valleys in the past decade or so. The bad news: Since 2008, the Eagles have only qualified for the playoffs once. The good news: that “once” was quite recent. In 2018, after nine consecutive losing seasons, the ragtag Eagles finished third in the league thanks in large part to one of the better relievers in the KBO: Woo-ram Jung. Sadly, the Eagles fell back to the bottom of the standings in 2019 (59-85), but there is hope on the horizon. In October of 2019, the Eagles hired former Eagle Min-chul Jeong to be the team’s new GM. The former pitcher is aiming to “build the bridge between the front office and the coaching staff on the field” and “rebuild [the] team into a contender.”
Originally, the Eagles were known for their sluggers. The team as a collective posted a .488 SLG in 1999, which is the highest in KBO history, and earned them the nickname the Dynamite Bats (this is also a nod to the Hanwha conglomerate’s main business: explosives production). Recently, they’ve traded power for speed and aggression on the base paths. The Eagles attempted 156 stolen bases in 2019 — second in the KBO — although their success rate was just 67%, second-lowest in the KBO. While the Eagles finished close to the bottom in a majority of offensive and pitching categories, they’ll look to a staff mixed with veterans and newcomers — along with a new GM — to help them climb back to the top of the KBO standings in 2020.
Best Hitter: Tae-Kyun Kim
There a few options here but it’s tough to not go with the guy who has hit over .300 for 10 consecutive seasons.
The soon to be 38 year-old 1B/3B has led the Eagles in batting average every year since 2015. While he once sported an elite 17% BB rate, Tae-kyun Kim was only able to play a total of 167 games between the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The walks didn’t return in 2019, but he still slashed an impressive .305/.382/.395. Is he going to hit for power in ’20? Likely not, as his days of 20+ HR seasons are in the past. Will he steal bases? Maybe one or two. Will he hit? Yes. A lot. While Tae-kyun Kim may no longer be the ideal lead-off hitter due to his lack of speed, he’s a great bat for the two spot.
- Jared Hoying: The former Texas Rangers prospect raked for the Eagles upon his 2018 debut with 30 HR and a .306/.369/.573 slash line before the de-juiced ball brought his power output down to 18 HR in 2019. Despite the decrease in power, Hoying still had a successful 2019 campaign with a .284/.340/.460 slash line and 22 stolen bases; good enough for ninth in the KBO.
- Eun-Won Jung: While he only slashed a league average .262/.317 /.374 last year, the utility infielder is only 19 years old. There are some rumblings that, as he continues to adjust to KBO pitching, his offense output will only increase. So if you’re looking for a young “prospect” to pull for, Eun-Won Jung is your guy.
- Jae-Hun Choi: The former Doosan Bear is not known for his power — just 8 HR over eight seasons — but according to KBReport.com’s leaderboards, Jae-Hun Choi’s 3.6 WAR led the team thanks to his .361 wOBA and .290/.398/.362 slash line.
Best Pitcher: Warwick Saupold
Only two pitchers for the Eagles threw over 150 IP in 2019: Chad Bell (177.1) and Warwick Saupold (192.1). Of those two, only one posted a 3+ WAR: former Detroit Tigers prospect Saupold. The Aussie righty debuted for the Eagles last year with a 3.51 ERA, a 3.49 FIP and a 6.30 K/9 (remember, the league average ERA was 4.17 and K/9 was 7.3). Saupold has a four-pitch arsenal: a four-seamer (90-92 mph), cutter (87-89), curveball (79-81), and change-up (85-87). Saupold is set to take the ball on Opening Day against former Pittsburgh Pirate and Toronto Blue Jay Nick Kingham.
- Chad Bell: The former Texas Rangers prospect posted a 1.30 WHIP along with a 2.9 WAR — both second-best on the team — along with a 0.70 HR/9 and a 4.15 FIP. The southpaw had an electric ending to the 2019 season, as he posted a 2.01 ERA in his final six starts. Bell attributes the success to a mid-season adjustment where he stopped throwing his slider. While Bell will be sidelined for at least two weeks with elbow pain, he’s hoping to provide the Eagles with “more quality starts” than he did last year.
- Woo-ram Chung: The lefty closer has been a staple at the back end of the Hanwha Eagles’ bullpen for the past four seasons. Featuring a high-80s fastball, a high-70s circle-change, a low-70s curveball (all featured here), a low-80s slider, and a very rarely thrown splitter, Woo-ram Chung is more of a finesse closer than a flamethrower. The lack of velo didn’t seem to matter all that much last year, as he posted 26 saves with a team-leading 3.31 FIP and 1.20 WHIP and an above-league-average 7.4 K/9.
- Young-myung Ahn: The 34-year-old veteran may be the oldest pitcher on the Hanwha Eagles, but he’s still on the roster for a reason. The righty reliever posted a 3.67 FIP along with a 6.9 K/9 and a 1.8 BB/9 in 2019. He features a low-90s fastball with a decent amount of run, an 85 mph slider that features more vertical than horizontal movement, a low-80s change up and a low-70s curve. He’ll look to be the bridge to Woo-ram Chung in the 2020 campaign.
Fun Facts About the Hanwha Eagles:
- Became the first team to introduce cheerleading fan-bots that, among other things, allowed fans to upload their faces to a robot in the stands.
- Each stadium has a speciality food associated with cheering. While some stadiums feature boiled thin noodles or bacon, the Eagles specialty food is chicken.
- Originally the Binggrae Eagles, they changed their name to the Hanwha Eagles in 1993.
- A severe losing slump in the 2009 and 2010 seasons briefly earned them the nickname the Hanwha Chickens.
- The Eagles have three retired numbers, more than any other team in the league:
- Jong-hoon Jang
- Min-chul Jung (now GM)
- Jin-woo Song
Most Similar MLB Team: Baltimore Orioles
They don’t have the best rotation. Their analytics department may not be the best. They have an absolutely gorgeous stadium. They may not be the most competitive organization this year. Now, let’s talk about the Eagles. They finished tenth in the league in hits allowed, ninth in earned runs, walks, and WHIP. So why would you root for them? The GM is turning things around. He’s bringing change to an organization that is hungry to get their team back to their winning ways. They have fun young players like Eun-won Jung and Jin-hyuk Chang as well as veterans like Tae-kyun Kim and Woo-ram Chung. If you get more thrills rooting for the underdog as opposed to the perennial favorites, than the Hanwha Eagles are for you.
— Alex Fast
Still struggling with what team you would like to support? Well, you’re in luck. This tweet features a GIF randomizer featuring all 10 teams. Simply click the GIF and meet your new favorite team.
Other Resources to Learn About the KBO:
Official KBO Website
FanGraphs write-up on KBO
Eno Sarris’ write-up & C. Trent Rosecrans’ write-up via The Athletic
KPH to MPH (trust me, it will help during broadcasts)
Where Can I Watch:
This section will be updated periodically as there seem to be more outlets offering streaming services by the day.
The KBO is more than just a league to watch while we wait for the MLB to return. It’s a league fueled by MLB-caliber players yearning to leave an impression, passionate fans, organizations hungry for championships and much more. The velocity is in kph. There are bat flips. Insane first pitches. Personalized cheers for every single player and countless traditions that have spanned decades. At the end of the day, the KBO is what we love: baseball.
— Alex Fast