Tomorrow is Opening Day! Not so much in North America, where the pandemic has forced Major League Baseball to optimistically eye late June or early July as a start date. But in South Korea, where they have reported their first day of no new domestic cases, the coronavirus has been successfully contained, allowing their professional baseball league to begin play today.
Baseball has been played in Korea since the late 19th century, when American missionaries first brought the game over. U.S. Marines would continue the spread of the sport. Once South Korea began to industrialize, a professional baseball league was formed in 1982, and the Korean Baseball Organization now has ten teams in the most popular sports league in the country.
With real live baseball being played across the ocean and ESPN reaching agreement to broadcast games, I thought it might be fun to pick a team to root for. Let’s learn more about the KBO!
How is it different from MLB?
For the most part, the game is the same. Teams can be named for cities or regions, but they may be named after the corporate conglomerate that owns them, such as Kia, Samsung or LG. Games are declared ties after 12 innings (15 for the post-season). The designated hitter rule is universal. Only three foreign players are allowed on each roster.
Each team plays 144 games, playing each team in the league 16 times. Five teams make the playoffs, with the #4 and #5 seed playing in a Wild Card matchup in the first round where the lower seed has to win twice, or the higher seed can win once to advance. That winner takes on the #3 seed in a best-of-five, and that winner takes on the #2 seed in a best-of-five. That winner takes on the #1 seed in the KBO Korean Series, a best-of-seven series for the championship.
The KBO de-juiced their ball in 2019, dropping the home run rate by as much as 40 percent. That coupled with an emphasis on contact, small ball, and fundamentals, makes the KBO look more like Major League Baseball in the 1980s than the product today. Last year, KBO teams hit .267/.337/.385 compared to .252/.323/.435 by MLB hitters.
Games are a bit more raucous than MLB games with cheerleaders, fans with musical instruments, and theme songs and chants for each player as well as bat flips, bat flips, bat flips. You should also know that in Korea, the naming convention is the family name comes first. So while we may say “Hyun-Jin Ryu” here, in Korea he is known as “Ryu Hyun-Jin.”
How good is the competition?
The talent level can vary from team to team, and by player to player. Some players are MLB-quality, but some would have trouble in an A-ball lineup. Generally, KBO is thought of as a step below the Japanese NPB, with generally a talent level on par with somewhere between Double-A and Triple-A.
The average salary is about 150 million won, which comes to about $122,000 with the minimum wage at about $23,000. The highest-paid player last year was slugger Dae-ho Lee, who made 2.5 billion won, or $2.2 million. Foreign players are capped to make no more than $1 million, which is usually far more than they made in North America. Teams had pursued older MLB vets for awhile, but have now sought out younger players looking for an opportunity, and have had more success with that approach, with players like Eric Thames, Dustin Nippert, and Josh Lindblom enjoying great success and becoming fan favorites.
This year there are 30 foreign players that include former Royals pitchers Aaron Brooks and Ben Lively, as well as first baseman Jamie Romak, who spent three seasons as a Royals minor leaguer, but has spent the last three seasons as one of the biggest sluggers in Korea, with 103 home runs over that time.
Foreign players in the KBO in 2020
|Position||Name||Team||MLB teams played for|
|Position||Name||Team||MLB teams played for|
|RHP||Raul Alcantara||Doosan Bears||Athletics|
|OF||Aaron Altherr||NC Dinos||Phillies, Giants, Mets|
|LHP||Chad Bell||Hanwa Eagles||Tigers|
|RHP||Jake Brigham||Kiwoom Heroes||Braves|
|RHP||Aaron Brooks||Kia Tigers||Royals, Athletics, Orioles|
|RHP||David Buchanan||Samsung Lions||Phillies|
|RHP||William Cuevas||KT Wiz||Red Sox, Tigers|
|RHP||Odrisamer Despaigne||KT Wiz||Padres, Orioles, Marlins, Angels, White Sox|
|DH||Jose Miguel Fernandez||Doosan Bears||Angels|
|RHP||Chris Flexen||Doosan Bears||Mets|
|RHP||Drew Gagnon||Kia Tigers||Mets|
|OF||Jared Hoying||Hanwa Eagles||Rangers|
|LHP||Eric Jokisch||Kiwoom Heroes||Cubs|
|RHP||Casey Kelly||LG Twins||Padres, Giants, Braves|
|LHP||Nick Kingham||SK Wyverns||Pirates, Blue Jays|
|RHP||Ben Lively||Samsung Lions||Phillies, Royals|
|IF||Dixon Machado||Lotte Giants||Tigers|
|IF||Taylor Motter||Kiwoom Heroes||Rays, Mariners, Twins|
|RHP||Ricardo Pinto||SK Wyverns||Phillies, Rays|
|1B||Roberto Ramos||LG Twins||Rockies (AAA)|
|OF||Mel Rojas, Jr.||KT Wiz||Pirates, Braves (AAA)|
|1B||Jamie Romak||SK Wyverns||Dodgers, Diamondbacks|
|RHP||Drew Rucinski||NC Dinos||Angels, Twins, Marlins|
|SS||Tyler Saladino||Samsung Lions||White Sox, Brewers|
|RHP||Adrian Sampson||Lotte Giants||Mariners, Rangers|
|RHP||Warwick Saupold||Hanwa Eagles||Tigers|
|RHP||Dan Straily||Lotte Giants||Athletics, Cubs, Astros, Reds, Marlins, Orioles|
|RF||Preston Tucker||Kia Tigers||Astros, Braves, Reds|
|RHP||Tyler Wilson||LG Twins||Orioles|
|RHP||Mike Wright||NC Dinos||Orioles, Mariners|
What are the teams?
There are ten teams, all in the same league, with no divisions.
Home: Jamsil Baseball Stadium, Seoul
2019 record: 88-55
Mascot: Chuel Oong, the steel bear
The Bears were the first champion in 1982, and have played in the last five Korean Series, winning three titles, including last year. They originally began play in Daejeon, but moved to Seoul in 1985 and became the Doosan Bears, named after the Doosan Corporation. Long time veteran first baseman Jae-Il Oh won Korea Series MVP, and paced the team with 21 home runs and 102 RBI. He is joined by slugger Jose Miguel Fernandez who hit .344 with 15 home runs at DH. Josh Lindblom won the regular season MVP for the Bears last year, but he returned to MLB this year and the Bears will have to rely on 21-year old 17-game winner Young-ha Lee. They are also the favored team of noted Royals fan Sung Woo Lee, who told me he was captivated by Bears pitcher Cheol-Sun Bak winning 22-games in a row in 1982, and the team had held his attention ever since.
Pros: Defending champs, consistently good.
Cons: Lost a lot of talent this year.
Home: Hanwha Life Insurance Eagles Park, Daejeon
2019 record: 58-86
Mascot: Winny and Vinny Eagle
The Eagles replaced the departing Bears in Daejeon in 1985 and won their only title in 1999, carried by a big offense of sluggers nicknamed “The Dynamite Bats.” They originally produced Hyun-Jin Ryu, the first player to go straight from the KBO to MLB. It has been a tough decade for the Eagles, with nine consecutive losing seasons, interrupted by one playoff appearance in 2018, then back to the bottom of the standings last year. Former Rangers outfielder Jared Hoying hit 18 home runs and stole 22 bases while hitting .284 for the largely toothless offense. My mother is from nearby Daejeon, the central area of Korea, so I am predisposed to root for the Eagles.
Pros: Play in ballpark with one of the best backdrops. Similar to the Royals with a poor offense trying to steal a lot of bases.
Cons: They’ve been a pretty bad team for a long time.
Home: Gwangju-Kia Champions Field, Gwangju
2019 record: 62-80
Mascot: Hodori, the tiger
The Tigers are the most successful KBO team of all-time with 11 championships, however they have just two in the last 20 years. They have achieved this success despite playing in one of the smaller cities in the league - Gwangju - and often going through financial difficulties that have led them to lose their top players. The team struggled last year and fired their manager, replacing him with former Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams. Left fielder Hyeong-Woo Choi and rightfielder Preston Tucker will try to revive an offense that was second-to-last in runs scored, while 16-game winner Hyeon-jong Yang will try to repeat his 2.29 ERA from last year.
Pros: Feature former Royals pitcher Aaron Brooks, and former big leaguer Hee Sop Choi as a coach.
Cons: Another rebuilding team that stunk last year.
Home: Gocheok Sky Dome, Seoul
2019 record: 86-57
Mascot: Teokdori, aka “Mr. Jaw”
The Heroes were originally the Sammi Superstars and have gone through several incarnations, even disbanding at one point. But they re-emerged and were known as the Nexen Heroes for a decade before Kiwoom Securities bought their naming rights last year. They are just one of three teams to never win a title, but they surprised many by ending up in the Korean Series last year, getting swept by the Bears in four games in a matchup of Seoul teams. The Heroes had the best offense in the league last year with young hitters like 20-year old outfielder Jung-hoo Lee, who hit .336, and 23-year old shorstop Ha-Seong Kim, who hit .307 with 33 steals and 19 home runs. Former Twins slugger Byung-Ho Park smacked 33 home runs for the Heroes last year.
Pros: Up-and-coming team full of exciting young players.
Cons: No corporate owner, team always among the lower payrolls.
Home: Suwon Baseball Stadium, Suwon
2019 record: 71-71
Mascot: Vic and DDory (“Victory”)
The Wiz joined the league in 2015 and finished in last place their first three seasons, but had their first non-losing season last year. Outfielder Baek-ho Kang won Rookie of the Year as an 18-year old by setting a rookie record for home runs with 29 in 2018, and still managed to hit .336 with 13 home runs after the ball was de-juiced last year. Third baseman Jae-gyun Hwang, who briefly spent time with the San Francisco Giants, hit 20 home runs, while outfielder Mel Rojas, Jr., whose dad was a MLB reliever, hit 24. The Wiz signed former Padres pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne to join 13-game winner William Cuevas and former Cubs prospect Dae-Eun Rhee. But the Wiz will hope 21-year old Min Kim and 23 year old Jae-sung Bae each take a step forward this year in the rotation.
Pros: Great young talent, franchise on the upswing.
Cons: No tradition, financially limited.
Home: Jamsil Baseball Stadium, Seoul
2019 record: 79-64
Mascot: Lucky and Star
The Twins began play as the MBC Blue Dragons, but were bought by conglomerate LG in 1990, winning the first of their two franchise titles that season. They won the Wild Card last year, just their second winning season since 2002, but fell in the next round. Former Orioles outfielder Hyun Soo Kim leads the offense with a line of .370/.3407/.437 with 11 home runs. Two foreigners lead the pitching staff - former Padres prospect Casey Kelly and former Orioles pitcher Tyler Wilson each won 14 games with a sub-3.00 ERA.
Pros: After a decade of bad baseball, the franchise seems to be on the right track.
Cons: Have to play second fiddle to the Doosan Bears in Seoul.
Home: Busan Sajik Baseball Stadium, Busan
2019 record: 48-93
Mascot: Noori, Ahra, and Fini
The Giants are perhaps the most popular team, despite not having a ton of on-field success. Unofficially known as the Busan Seagulls, the team set the KBO attendance record in 2009. Despite being an original franchise, they have just two titles - in 1984 and 1992, and haven’t played in the Korean Series since 1999. Last year the Giants were just dreadful, despite having the highest payroll in the KBO. They had the worst offense and the worst pitching. The team did add two free agent pitchers, former Marlins pitcher Dan Straily and former Rangers pitcher Adrian Sampson. Slugger Dae-Ho Lee, who once played for the Mariners, smacked 16 home runs last year, but at age 38 he can’t be expected to carry the offense. The Giants did hire former Cubs scout Sung Min-kyu as their new GM this winter, so things could turn around soon.
Pros: One of their most famous super fans is American-born Kerry Maher, a professor at a nearby university, who adopted the Giants and became a fixture at games. The Giants also have a sweet song.
Cons: The team is just dreadfully bad.
Home: Changwon NC Park, Changwon
2019 record: 73-69
The Dinos began as a minor league team but moved up to the KBO in 2013, and made their first Korean Series in 2016, where they were swept by the Doosan Bears. They have had winning seasons in five of the seven years since they joined the league. They have aggressively courted free agents, despite playing in Changwon, the smallest city hosting a KBO team. The Dinos have the league’s best catcher in Ui-ji Yang, a big-time free agent signing who hit .344 with 20 home runs. MLB journeyman Drew Ruczinski won nine games with a 3.05 ERA last year.
Pros: One of the more analytical teams in the KBO. Led the league in homers. Yang is like Salvy Perez, a big goofy guy who is great at catching and hitting home runs. They have a big rivalry with the Lotte Giants. Also, this.
Cons: Not much history.
Home: Daegu Samsung Lions Park, Daegu
2019 record: 60-83
Mascot: Bleo, the lion.
The Lions have won the second-most titles with eight, and were in the Korean Series every year from 2010 to 2015, winning four straight titles at one point. They have had leaner times since then, with four straight losing seasons, losing 80+ games for the first time in club history in 2017, then doing it again last year. They lost their stop slugger, former Phillies first baseman Darin Ruf, who returned to the States. Third baseman Won-seok Lee hit 19 home runs, but hit just .246 and is 33 years old. Former Royals pitcher Ben Lively was one of their better pitchers, but he made just nine starts. Former Cardinals pitcher Seung-Hwan Oh also joins the team this year, but may not have much at age 38.
Pros: Great tradition, we’re already used to a lion mascot.
Cons: Old, not very good team.
Home: Munhak Baseball Stadium, Incheon
2019 record: 88-55
The Wyverns (named for a mythical two-legged dragon) joined the league in 2000 to replace a dissolved franchise, winning the first of their four titles in 2007. In 2016, they hired former Royals manager Trey Hillman, and in 2018 he became the first foreign manager to win the title by toppling the Doosan Bears. Hillman departed after that season, but the winning has continued with a franchise record 88 wins last year. Former Royals farmhand Jamie Romak has become one of the biggest sluggers in the KBO, smacking 29 home runs last year and becoming a fan favorite. Third baseman Jeong Choi matched him with 29 home runs of his own to go with a line of .292/.399/.519. They lost their two best pitchers - Kwang-Hyung Kim to the St. Louis Cardinals and Angel Sanchez to the Yomiuri Giants.
Pros: Led the league in steals and pitching, but can also hit home runs.
Cons: Decimated pitching staff.
So how can I watch?
Games will air on ESPN!
ESPN will air six KBO games per week. Here's the schedule for this week! pic.twitter.com/QB0mb9srDZ— Jared Diamond (@jareddiamond) May 4, 2020
Tune in and catch some real baseball!
What KBO team should we root for?
This poll is closed