Last year, with MLB on hold for the spring months due to the pandemic, I watched some baseball from across the big pond. We can call the Pacific that, right? It was a fun opportunity to watch some leagues many of us don’t get a chance to see in the US. ESPN even broadcast KBO games! Throughout the year, we periodically checked in with various leagues: (CPBL Intro), (Pick KBO team), (May), (Early June), (Late June), (July), (October), and (November Season Wrapup).
Disclaimer: I’ve done my best to compile what I could about each of these leagues below for the 2021 season along with some fun little nuggets. However, it’s very possible the international player lists are off, I missed a former Royal who got a cup of coffee, or I don’t quite have the whole story right.
If you’re wondering about competition level, here are Baseball America’s thoughts last year:
Overall, here is the hierarchy of how MLB front office officials and evaluators generally view the quality of the various Asian leagues compared to MLB and the minor leagues.
Opening Day: March 13th
International Players: Notable names include Deck McGuire, Junichi Tazawa, and Felix Doubront. Full list from CPBLStats
Rooting Interest: My beloved CPBL: Once the pandemic is over, I’m going to try to go see a couple of CPBL games. I was all in on the Rakuten Monkeys. They had the first English broadcasts and were the inspiration for my first article.
- The league added a fifth team in the offseason, the Wei Chuan Dragons, who last played in 1999, which will result in some interesting scheduling quirks. The Dragons won the title in 1997, 1998, and 1999 but were then disbanded due to “threats from local criminal gangs” and “the financial loss brought about by CPBL’s game-fixing scandals since 1996”
- CPBL Stats is a great site for all things CPBL and has this amazing primer for the 2021 season. The writer there calls it a “quick guide” and it’s a mile long. My kind of writer! There’s even an entire section about former Royals utility player Rosell Herrera. Apparently, international hitters are not common, “because pitchers are extremely valuable in the CPBL, foreign hitters would have to put up some ridiculous video game batting number like .500 in batting average to earn their spot on the active roster”. But, due to expansion rules, Herrera was selected by the Wei Chuan Dragons.
- The CPBL de-juiced the ball in the offseason so we’ll see how that affects play. Last year, there were some crazy ends to games as bullpens were weak and it wouldn’t be unusual for a team to score 5+ runs in the last couple of innings.
- Sadly, I think the English broadcasts, some of which garnered over a million viewers, were only a 2020 thing. If someone sees 2021 English broadcasts, I’d love to know about them.
How about a video? The KBO trophy last year was a giant video game sword!
Country: South Korea
Opening Day: April 3rd
International Players: Notable names include Odrisamer Despaigne, Dan Straily, Casey Kelly, Preston Tucker, and Ryon Healy. Full list from MyKBOStats
Rooting Interest: Last year, Max wrote RR’s official primer for the KBO. And, while the poll results said SK Wyverns, the comments clearly revealed that the Hanwha Eagles were the Royals KBO doppelganger.
- Sadly the SK Wyverns and their great mascot are gone. They were recently bought and renamed the SSG Landers. Getting rid of the dragon mascot is sad. But they are using a UFO one instead so that’s unique. Sadly, their stadium, SK Happy Dream Park, was also renamed. Here’s a fun article about Korean sports team nicknames.
- One of the biggest stories of the KBO offseason is a homecoming. After 16 MLB seasons, South Korean OF Shin-Soo Choo signed with the aforementioned Landers and will make his KBO debut at 38 years old.
- Former Royal Aaron Brooks had a great 2020 KBO season, going 11-4 with a 2.50 ERA. However, his season was cut short last September when he had to fly back to the US. His wife and two children were in a bad car accident in Kansas City. Thankfully, his family has recovered and he has returned to the Tigers for the 2021 season.
Opening Day: March 26
International Players: Notable names include Leonys Martin, Rusney Castillo, Stefen Romero, Justin Smoak, and Eric Thames. Full list from Wikipedia
Rooting Interest: Last year, the Yakult Swallows were the RR adopted team as it featured both Nori Aoki and Alcides Escobar. Like the Eagles, they finished in last place. Escobar is no longer in the league but Aoki is back with the Swallows. He played eight years for Yakult before coming to the US and this will be his fourth season back since returning to Japan.
- The league will shut down from July 15 through August 12 as Japan hosts the Olympic games (hopefully).
- No extra inning games this season due to the pandemic and curfews.
- The Japan Times has a 2021 Preview section with capsules for each team.
- After his time in the majors, former Royal and RR fan favorite Kila Ka’aihue went to the NPB and played with the Hiroshima Carp in 2014 and 2015. He is now a baseball coach for the University of Hawaii and earned an accounting degree in 2020.