What I learned after watching a week’s worth of Korean baseball
The Korea Baseball Organization filled a void last week. Without baseball, as the United States continues to battle with COVID-19, the KBO and Michael Jordan’s “The Last Dance” have given us some sort of connection to a sports world that has become distant.
I took the time to watch some of the KBO last week and it got my baseball juices flowing again. Here’s some of what I enjoyed and learned.
<b>Pitching with finesse</b>
Many pitchers displayed finesse rather than power, sitting between 89-92 miles per hour. Pitchers relied heavily on changeups, often leading to overaggressive hitters to whiff. The changeups are good ones, too, and the pitchers aren’t afraid to throw them in any count.
NC Dinos lefthander Chang-mo Koo showed some of that finesse and ability in his start against the Samsung Lions last Thursday. He went six innings without giving up a run and yielding just two hits.
<b>Different approach to hitting</b>
The hitters certainly don’t get cheated on their swings. Baseball in Asia is dominated by the Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. According to Baseball America, it is a league that ranks just behind Major League Baseball in on-field talent. The Japanese approach at the plate encompasses more of a bat-to-ball approach.
Japanese legend Ichiro Suzuki, for instance, always focused on putting the ball in play, despite his teammates raving about the immense power he would display during batting practice. Suzuki’s approach was highly effective even once he reached the United States in 2001.
In the KBO, however, players are taking their hacks with a bit more flair. Ten players in the 10-team league hit 20-plus homers last year, led by former Minnesota Twin ByungHo Park with 33. In its entirety, the KBO is an offensive league. The Dinos’ Ui-ji Yang hit .354 last season, for example.
<b>Let’s talk about flair</b>
Bat flips in the majors still leaves a sour taste in a player’s mouth. MLB’s slogan “Let The Kids Play” hasn’t gone over well with some players (think Madison Bumgarner) or some of the public (think the old fans and team broadcasters). To them, it is seen as bush league and players such as the White Sox’ Tim Anderson, who has become known for showing expression and has been unapologetic about it, has been beaned for his bat flips.
In Korea, though, the bat flip is just a way of life. They’ll flip them on tape-measure homers, but I was also enamored with them flipping them on singles or maybe even a grounder to shortstop. I caught myself saying “What was that?” after seeing one player ground out, but also seeing his bat fly.
For me, that meant one thing: Even in you fail at the plate, that doesn’t mean you have to look bad doing it. Throw in a flip.
The defense in Korea lacked a bit. I saw a few misjudged balls in the outfield that you don’t normally see. Some of the infield play was a bit sloppier, too, and double plays weren’t turned that quickly.
<b>The overall product</b>
You can see that baseball isn’t just a game over there, it’s an event. Despite there not being fans in the stands, there’s still this flair. They still dancers in the crowd, which sort of reminds you of the World Baseball Classic.
“The biggest thing that will stand out to viewers once fans are able to come to the ballpark is the fan engagement,” said Josh Herzenberg, the Lotte Giants’ quality control coach and pitching coordinator. “Each player has his own cheer song, which is performed by the entire stadium and is lead by a ‘cheermaster’ and a group of cheerleaders. It’s raucous and engaging and a lot of fun. The best comparison to an American sporting event would be something like a big college football game.”
The COVID-19 numbers have seen an increase in the last couple of days in South Korea, however. If one player tests positive, the league will shut down. So, the likelihood of fans returning might be slim at this point, but you still get the vibe that the culture views baseball more through a celebratory lens, something baseball in the United States doesn’t have.
ESPN’s Joon Lee joined the network’s live broadcast last week and brought a unique perspective. Lee was born in Korea but moved to the United States when he was 2 months old. He said you are being able to bring in outside food to KBO games.
Imagine trying to do that in any MLB stadium? I couldn’t even do it as a reporter — and it wasn’t even “outside food.”
I used to cover the Oakland A’s. Their concession food is so gross that team president Dave Kaval arranged for food trucks for fans to enjoy outside the stadium, sandwiched between the old Oracle Arena, where the Golden State Warriors played, and the Coliseum. I remember buying some shrimp and chips from this food truck, Southern Comfort. I walked into the media dining area with it and the security stops me.
“You can’t eat that in here,” she said. “No outside food.”
“But I’m media and I bought it from the food truck,” I responded.
“But yeah, you can’t eat that in here, or I’ll get in trouble,” she responded
I saw it as one of the oddest and most controlling moments I had experienced.
Yet in Korea fans can bring in their own food!
OK, story time over.
<b>This is MLB’s chance</b>
When watching the KBO games, I kept thinking about MLB and how it will navigate not having fans. But seeing how creative ESPN’s broadcast was, I saw it as a chance for MLB to get creative and capture a younger audience.
Watching a broadcast without people in the stands is something I took for granted. You never take into account how much space the fan voice fills. Without it, the broadcasters will have a lot to cover.
ESPN’s broadcast, which included two commentators, plus a third voice, might be a sample of what’s to come. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer, who has been highly critical of many of the broadcasts, joined and was a real treat to watch. Perhaps that can be a mainstay when and if baseball returns? There are a lot of avenues to explore.
<b>Meet the KBO teams</b>
Here’s a rundown of the teams, how they did last season, and their 2020 records as of Monday night.
Doosan Bears (3-2): The defending KBO champions. Tied for the best record in the league last year with the SK Wyverns (88-57).
SK Wyverns (1-4): Lost in the third round of the playoffs to the Kiwoon Heroes last year.
Hanwha Eagles (2-4): Finished with a 58-86 record last season and did not qualify for playoffs.
Kia Tigers (2-4): Finished at 62-80 and didn’t make the playoffs.
Kiwoom Heroes (5-1): Made the postseason last year with an 86-57 record. Lost to the Doosan Bears in the Korean Series – the KBO equivalent of the World Series.
KT Wiz (1-4): Finished at .500 (71-71) and didn’t make the playoffs in 2019.
LG Twins (2-3): Posted a 79-64 record last year and lost in the second round of the playoffs.
Lotte Giants (5-0): They had the worst record in the league last year at 48-93.
NC Dinos (4-1): Went 73-69 and lost in the wild card round to the Twins.
Samsung Lions (2-4): Finished 60-83 and did not make the playoffs.
<b>Former Sox players in the KBO</b>
Casey Kelly: Pitcher for the LG Twins. Was the Red Sox’ first-round draft pick in 2008. He was traded to the Padres in a deal that brought Adrian Gonzalez to Boston in 2010.
Seung Song: Pitcher for the Lotte Giants. Song, who is from South Korea, joined the Red Sox organization as a 19-year-old in 1999. He ascended as high as Double-A in his five years with Boston. Has pitched for Lotte since 2007.
Raul Alcantara: Pitcher for the Doosan Bears. Signed with the Red Sox as an amateur free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2009, when he was 16. He was traded to the Athletics in 2011 as part of the deal that brought Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney to Boston.
William Cuevas: Pitcher for the KT Wiz. Signed with the Red Sox as an amateur free agent in July 2008, when he was 17. Spent the next eight seasons in the system, and made his major-league debut with Boston in 2016. He appeared in three major-league games in his first go-round with Boston, and two more in 2018 after signing a free-agent deal in 2017.