The Korea Baseball Organization, the highest level of baseball in South Korea, is scheduled to begin its season on Tuesday (which is overnight Monday in the U.S.), making it one of the first major professional sports leagues to return to action during the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not quite the opening day that fans of Major League Baseball envisioned six weeks ago, but it is live baseball, so here’s all you need to know about the KBO.
You can watch the action on ESPN, starting with a 1 a.m. ET broadcast of the NC Dinos and Samsung Lions matchup on opening night on ESPN and continuing with six regular-season games per week primarily on ESPN2.
ESPN’s KBO Power Rankings
1. Kiwoom Heroes. Must replace 2019 league RBI leader Jerry Sands, who signed with the Hanshin Tigers of Japan.
5. KT Wiz. Youngest pitching staff in league last year.
6. NC Dinos. Led KBO in home runs in 2019.
7. Samsung Lions. Top hitter Darin Ruf has returned to the United States.
9. Kia Tigers. 2017 champs continue to fall closer to the basement.
10. Hanwha Eagles. Even Warwick Saupold won’t be enough.
Voted on by Alden Gonzalez, Joon Lee and David Schoenfield.
A reason to root for each KBO team
Doosan Bears: The Bears enter the 2020 season as defending champions, and one of the teams to beat in the Korean Baseball Organization. Located in the capital city of Seoul, the Bears are one of the more analytically inclined and well-run organizations in the KBO, often thought of in the same light as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros (pre-trash-can-banging scandal). Managed by Tae-hyoung Kim, the Bears lost reigning KBO MVP Josh Lindblom to the Brewers, who gave the pitcher a three-year, $9.125 million contract. But they return 2018 MVP outfielder Jae-Hwan Kim, who hopes to bounce back after hitting .283/.369/.434 with 15 homers in 2019, down considerably from his MVP numbers (.334/.410/.657 and 44 homers).
Hanwha Eagles: The Eagles boast one of the most passionate fan bases in the entire KBO despite a franchise history with few bright spots, with the team’s lone Korean Series championship coming in 1999, following their introduction in 1986. The Eagles are the lovable losers of the league, similar to the Chicago Cubs during the Curse of the Billy Goat era. Eagles fans have a reputation for staying the entire game regardless of the score (although games will be played without spectators to start). The team’s farm system is regarded as one of the worst in the league, and the roster is filled with aging veterans and inexperienced young players.
Kia Tigers: Considered the New York Yankees of the KBO and the biggest television ratings draw, the Tigers enter the season with a lot of pressure following the introduction of former National League Manager of the Year Matt Williams as their new skipper for the 2020 season. Now armed with the league’s most decorated (and highest-paid) manager, everyone from ownership to fans to management are expecting a big season out of the Tigers. The team made headlines during practice games for incorporating extreme shifts like those in Major League Baseball, an American baseball analytics trend that has not permeated the Korean game. Every KBO team is allowed two foreigners, and the Tigers signed pitcher Aaron Brooks and outfielder Preston Tucker before the 2020 season.
Kiwoom Heroes: Marked by a fun and aggressive playing style, the Heroes are considered on-field rebels. Korean baseball tends to be more conservative, with players routinely looking toward the dugouts for signs from coaches. With a farm system run by former Yankee Shane Spencer, the Heroes play a style of baseball slightly more reminiscent of the American game. Daniel Kim, a reporter who covers the MLB and KBO for MBC Sports in Korea, likened the Heroes to the Tampa Bay Rays. The Heroes were embroiled in legal trouble in recent years after their owner, Chang-Suk Lee, was convicted for embezzlement, and they are considered a black eye on the sport by some fans. The team also developed former major leaguers Jung Ho Kang and ByungHo Park.
KT Wiz: The youngest team in the KBO, the Wiz are the least popular due to their short history. The Wiz are led by first baseman Baek-ho Kang, a 20-year-old considered by many Korean baseball executives as the next face of the league. Kang’s playing style has been compared by some scouts to that of Kyle Schwarber as a heavier-set first baseman who can hit the ball to the moon. Much of the Wiz’s future centers around Kang and his development. The team tried to play him in the outfield but moved him to first after a lack of success out there. Kang was a pitcher in high school, but the Wiz decided to turn him into a position player, and they are struggling to find a position for their young star. Former Cubs prospect Dae-Eun Rhee serves as the team’s closer.
LG Twins: The Twins are the closest approximation to the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox: a team with an incredibly passionate home fan base and superstars who always seems to mess things up in the big moments. The Twins share a stadium in Seoul with the Bears, who’ve won three Korean series championships since 2015, and the teams have a dynamic similar to the Yankees and New York Mets. While the Twins are more popular than the Bears, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt from their fans, who are among the most critical in the sport. The Twins are expected to contend and are led in their rotation by Casey Kelly, a first-round pick by the Red Sox in 2008 who was dealt to San Diego Padres as part of the trade that sent first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to Boston.
Lotte Giants: The story of the Giants in 2019 is simple. They spent the most money in the league and finished in last place. This past offseason brought a wide sweep of changes in the front office, and the team is looking to contend this year. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into their plans, however, with one of their two foreign players, Adrian Sampson, stuck in Seattle because of the crisis. Sampson was expected to be one of the top pitchers on the team, and he will instead be sitting halfway across the world when games start. The Giants play in Sajik Stadium, considered a holy ground among Korean baseball fans. Baseball legend Julio Franco is a member of the team’s coaching staff.
NC Dinos: The Dinos are one of the younger teams in the KBO, playing their first season in 2013, but they have emerged as a winner in their short history, making the playoffs in five of their seven seasons. Washington Nationals slugger Eric Thames became a star with the Dinos during his three-season stint from 2014 through 2016, hitting .381/.503/.790 with 47 homers, 42 doubles, 140 RBIs and 40 stolen bases in 2016 while winning the league’s MVP award. Dinos outfielder Sung-Bum Na is a client of agent Scott Boras and is expected to pursue a career in the major leagues.
Samsung Lions: The Lions were one of the top teams of the 2010s, pulling off four straight championships from 2011 through 2014, but they have fallen off a cliff since their glory run. In recent years, the international scouting for the Lions has fallen short. “All of the guys they have brought over have been disasters,” Daniel Kim said. Recent international signings for the Lions included Deck McGuire, Justin Haley and Allen Webster, with most of the American pitchers performing below average during their time in the KBO. Former Rays top prospect Hak Ju Lee mans shortstop for the Lions and shows flashes of brilliance despite some inconsistencies on the field.
SK Wyverns: The Wyverns are one of the more analytically driven organizations in the KBO and have been one of the top teams in the league. Their 2019 season ended in rough fashion when the team entered the last month of the season in first place by seven games, with the team holding the top regular-season record and earning automatic entry into the Korean Series. On the last day of the season, the Wyverns lost the lead to Doosan, completing a monumental collapse. Their ace, Kwang Hyun Kim, signed a two-year, $8 million contract with St. Louis, and the Wyverns look to rebound and shake the bad taste from their 2019 season. — Joon Lee
Five KBO season storylines
Matt Williams and the Kia Tigers
With Williams becoming the third American manager in KBO history for one of the league’s most popular teams, it has stirred the most buzz entering the season. Combine the fans’ expectations with Williams’ managerial pedigree and a lot will be expected of the Tigers early in the season. To help with Williams’ transition, the Tigers hired former major leaguers Hee-Seop Choi as hitting coach and Jae Seo as pitching coach, hoping to serve as a cultural bridge between manager and clubhouse.
“Korean fans are ruthless,” Daniel Kim said. “If the team gets off to a slow start, the negativity from the fans and the media is going to be hanging over players and they will need to anticipate a tense and challenging season ahead.”
Adrian Sampson stuck overseas
As one of the Giants’ two foreign players, Sampson figured to play a major role in determining whether Lotte could bounce back from one of the most embarrassing seasons in franchise history. Once Sampson is able to return to Korea, he would need to quarantine for three weeks before playing an inning of baseball. The Giants had expected Sampson to be one of the top pitchers in their rotation, so this is comparable to the Dodgers having to start the season without Walker Buehler.
Can the Wyverns bounce back?
The Wyverns finished their season in the worst way imaginable, blowing a seven-game lead for first place over the last month. Will the team be able to shake off the demons from 2019 and continue the franchise’s stretch of success?
Extra pressure on foreign players
In previous seasons, if a foreign player was not performing to expectations, teams could easily make a roster change and sign a replacement — perhaps a Triple-A player — by the All-Star Game. With it looking as if minor league baseball might not have a 2020 season and with travel restrictions in place, teams will need to commit to an entire season with their foreign players, regardless of performance.
“There’s even more pressure on the foreign players,” Kim said. “You have to stick with who you sign.”
Several young stars are expected to take steps forward this season, including 21-year-old outfielder Jung-Hoo Lee of the Heroes (son of former KBO MVP Jong-Beom Lee), 20-year-old outfielder Baek-Ho Kang of the Wiz and 24-year-old starter Se-woong Park of the Giants. — Joon Lee
Ten KBO players to watch
Eui-Ji Yang, C, NC Dinos. American pitcher Josh Lindblom was the 2019 MVP after leading the league in wins, strikeouts and innings and finishing second in ERA, but he signed a three-year, $9.125 contract with the Brewers to return to MLB. That leaves Yang as the highest returning player in the MVP vote. The veteran catcher will turn 33 this month, but he hit .354/.438/.574, leading the KBO in all three categories while hitting 20 home runs in 118 games — with more walks than strikeouts. Last year was his first season with the Dinos after spending the first nine seasons of his career with the Doosan Bears.
Hyeon-Jong Yang, LHP, Kia Tigers. The league MVP in 2017, Yang finished third in the 2019 voting after going 16-8 and leading the league with a 2.29 ERA. The 32-year-old lefty fanned 163 in 184⅔ innings and allowed just six home runs. After control problems earlier in his career, he walked just 1.6 per nine innings last season, a career best.
Ha-Seong Kim, SS, Kiwoom Heroes. One of the league’s young stars, Kim hit .307/.389/.491, with 19 home runs, 38 doubles and 33 steals in 37 attempts. Now 24, Kim has been a regular since he was 19 and has been one of the league’s top all-around players. Even with a leaguewide drop in offense in 2019 after changes were made to the ball, Kim improved his OPS by 48 points, making it his best season yet.
Baek-Ho Kang, RF, KT Wiz. Just 20 years old, Kang hit .336/.416/.495 with 13 home runs in 438 at-bats as a teenager last season, although his power dropped from 29 home runs with the deadened ball. Still, his average went up 46 points, and he also showcased solid plate discipline for such a young player, making him the Juan Soto of the KBO, of sorts. Like Soto, Kang also is a sight to see at the plate, with a high leg kick even by Korean standards and some of the best bat flips in the league. He should be in the middle of the Korean lineup at the next World Baseball Classic.
Jeong Choi, 3B, SK Wyverns. One of the league’s great veteran players with 335 career home runs, Choi was a heralded high school pitcher and hitter before finally settling on hitting as a pro. He was a member of World Baseball Classic teams in 2009 and 2013 and led the KOB in home runs in 2016 and 2017. He is 33 but is coming off a season in which he hit .292/.399/.519 with 29 home runs, ranking tied for second in home runs and fourth in OPS.
Byong-Ho Park, 1B, Kiwoom Heroes. Park’s two-year stint with the Minnesota Twins didn’t go so well, as he hit .191 in 215 at-bats (although with 12 home runs) in 2016 and spent all of 2017 at Triple-A. He returned to Korea and remains the top slugger in the league, hitting 43 home runs in 2018 and leading the league with 33 in 2019.
Hyun-Soo Kim, LF/1B, LG Twins. You might remember Kim from his time with the Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies in 2016 and 2017. He returned to Korea in 2018 and hit .362 with 20 home runs, but he fell off to .304 and 11 in 2019. He is 32 and one of the biggest names in the league, but he went from fifth in the league in OPS to 25th, so we’ll see if age is catching up to him.
Casey Kelly, RHP, LG Twins. A Red Sox first-round pick back in 2008, Kelly became a top prospect for the Padres. But he had Tommy John surgery in 2013 and bounced around the minors, with some spot appearances in the majors for the Padres, Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants, before heading to Korea for 2019. He went 14-12 with a 2.55 ERA for the Twins (although 19 unearned runs helped lower the ERA), striking out 126 in 180⅓ innings. Kelly throws a low 90s sinker that helps him get ground balls but doesn’t result in a high strikeout rate. That wasn’t enough to keep him in the majors, but it was effective enough in the KBO. Tyler Wilson, Kelly’s American teammate, also had a good season for the Twins, going 14-7 with a 2.92 ERA and similar peripherals to Kelly.
Jose Miguel Fernandez, 1B/DH, Doosan Bears. Fernandez had a cup of coffee with the Los Angeles Angels in 2018, but he signed with Doosan for 2019 and was one of the league’s best hitters, hitting .344/.409/.483 with 15 home runs while leading the league in hits. Fernandez played some second base and third base for the Angels, but the Cuban’s glove doesn’t really work in the infield except at first base, and he lacks the power to play there in the U.S. He spent most of his time at DH in 2019 for Doosan.
Jamie Romak, 1B, SK Wyverns. The Canada native got 39 plate appearances for the Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014 and 2015. Now he heads into his fourth season in the KBO as one of the top sluggers in the league. He hit .276/.370/.508 in 2019 with 29 home runs — after seasons of 31 and 43 homers. Romak brings a three true outcomes approach to the KBO: He ranked second (tied) in home runs, fifth in walks and second (tied) in strikeouts. — David Schoenfield
Five more names U.S. fans should know
LF Jae-Hwan Kim (Doosan Bears): Kim was posted, somewhat surprisingly, this past offseason. The Miami Marlins showed interest, but Kim ultimately didn’t sign with an MLB team. He returned to the Bears, who can post him again after the 2020 season. Kim is a 31-year-old left-handed hitter who totaled 116 home runs and 372 RBIs from 2016 to 2018, with an OPS over 1.000 each season. But his numbers fell when the league switched to a bigger, heavier ball to neutralize offense in 2019, finishing with a .283/.362/.434 slash line and 15 home runs in 574 plate appearances.
SP Dan Straily (Lotte Giants): After an eight-year career that saw him accumulate 803⅓ innings for six major league organizations, Straily headed east, signing a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Giants in December. Straily will hope to follow the path of someone like Josh Lindblom, a seasoned major league pitcher who won the KBO’s MVP award last year and immediately found himself back in the majors with a sizable contract.
OF Sung-Bum Na (NC Dinos): Na starred for the Dinos from 2014 to 2018. He hired agent Scott Boras with hopes of signing with a major league team after the 2019 season, but he suffered a gruesome leg injury just 23 games into it, all but eliminating the possibility. Now Na seeks a major bounce-back performance. Before the injury, the 30-year-old left-handed hitter produced five consecutive seasons of at least a .309 batting average and an .885 OPS.
1B Dae-Ho Lee (Lotte Giants): Lee is probably the Albert Pujols of the KBO — highly accomplished, well-compensated and late in his career. Lee is the league’s highest-paid player, a man who has amassed 312 home runs and 1,742 hits over the course of 14 seasons. But he is 37, and last year, his power numbers fell off considerably — as did the entire league’s — although he still batted .285/.355/.435. Lee had a memorable stint with the Seattle Mariners in 2016. The M’s general manager, Jerry Dipoto, said Lee is “roughly Babe Ruth in the KBO.”
OF Jung-Hoo Lee (Kiwoom Heroes): Lee, the son of former KBO MVP Jong-Beom Lee, was the league’s rookie of the year straight out of high school in 2017. In three seasons, he has put up a .338/.397/.449 slash line, striking out only 18 more times than he has walked. He is only 21 but is already considered the league’s premier contact hitter. His goal for 2020 is to record more than 200 hits. (KBO’s single-season record is 201.) — Alden Gonzalez
Five differences between the KBO and MLB
Logistics: The KBO consists of only 10 teams, and the regular season is 144 games, with each team playing the others 16 times. Mondays are traditional off days, but they won’t be this year. The playoffs are thus shorter; five teams make it, with the top seed automatically advancing all the way to the best-of-seven championship series, and the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds also receiving byes on a sliding scale. Because South Korea is a much smaller country geographically, most of the travel is done by bus.
Ties are OK (even in the playoffs): The KBO tried playing limitless games in 2008 but scrapped the idea a year later. Regular-season games are now declared a tie after the 12th inning during the regular season and after the 15th inning in the postseason. (In the postseason, tie games are replayed.) The board initially determined that ties would count among the non-wins that would negatively affect a team’s winning percentage, theoretically creating extra incentive to go for victories. Two seasons later, the league decided that ties basically shouldn’t count in the standings.
The universal DH: It seems as if we have been debating the merits of a universal DH in MLB since the dawn of time. In the KBO, it a step ahead. Pitchers don’t hit unless their teams want them to. Hate it or love it, you will see nine capable hitters come to bat in every lineup, not eight.
Customized theme songs: Tired: Picking your own walk-up music. Wired: Having walk-up music made for you! That’s the KBO’s style. Players get their own customized songs to be introduced with. They’re called cheer songs. (Yes, Eric Thames got one.) They’re indicative of the appreciably more raucous atmospheres at KBO games — which unfortunately we won’t get to witness under the circumstances.
Bat flips! Flip your bat in the States and you can expect a stern lecture from Brian McCann. Often, the end result will be a fastball to your midsection. The KBO isn’t repressed in that way. Players show emotion, largely manifesting itself in an elaborate flick of the bat upon hard contact. It’s an art form out there, meant to be savored. Enjoy. — Alden Gonzalez
Five former KBO stars now in MLB
Eric Thames: Thames was one of the most popular players in the KBO during his time with the Dinos, and he wears an elbow pad featuring his name in Korean to this date. Before signing to play in Korea in 2014, Thames had not played in the major leagues for two years. After winning a Gold Glove and an MVP award, Thames returned to the U.S. with the Milwaukee Brewers, hitting 72 homers in three seasons before signing with the Washington Nationals this past offseason.
Mickey Callaway: The Los Angeles Angels pitching coach and former manager of the New York Mets was part of the first wave of American players who took their baseball careers to Korea, playing for the now-defunct Hyundai Unicorns. Callaway is said to regularly visit South Korea during his offseasons.
Merrill Kelly: Kelly’s success in 2019 with Arizona further legitimized the KBO-to-MLB pipeline when the hurler started 32 games for the D-backs in 2019 with a 4.42 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 158 strikeouts and 1.4 WAR. Kelly had never pitched in the majors before pitching four seasons for the Wyverns, posting a 3.86 ERA in 729⅔ innings from 2015 through 2018. With every KBO stadium now equipped with TrackMan cameras, MLB teams will have deeper access to data on KBO pitchers.
Josh Lindblom: The success of Kelly in 2019 opened the door for Lindblom’s three-year, $9.125 million contract with the Brewers. Lindblom spent five seasons with the Doosan Bears, posting a 3.55 ERA in 823⅓ innings, and he won 20 games in 2019. Lindblom became the fifth foreign player to win league MVP honors, joining Tyrone Woods (1998), Daniel Rios (2007), Thames (2015) and Dustin Nippert (2016).
“[Kelly and Lindblom] have reinvented the perception of the KBO,” Kim said. “Success means something now.”
Hyun-Jin Ryu: Ryu is one of the most famous people, let alone athletes, in South Korea. As a celebrity endorser, his image in Korea is like a combination of Tiger Woods and LeBron James. Everyone and their grandma knows who Ryu is in Korea.
“He himself is an event and a source of news,” Daniel Kim said. “Whatever he says, the little things he does, it all becomes a top story in Korea. When Hyun-Jin pitches, it’s like the Super Bowl every five days. He’s an event by himself. You don’t have to be a sports fan to know who he is.” — Joon Lee
Five KBO fun facts to impress your friends in a Zoom watch party
• The Doosan Bears and SK Wyverns tied for the regular-season title in 2019 at 88-55-1 (games tied after 12 innings are considered ties). Doosan was awarded the title based on winning the season series 9-7 — a big deal since the regular-season winner goes straight to the Korean Series while four other playoff teams battle to get there. The Bears swept the Kiwoom Heroes in four games in the championship.
• The Kia Tigers, known as the Haitai Tigers from 1982 to 2000, hold the record with 11 Korean Series titles. Here’s the amazing part of that, however: They are 11-0 in the Korean Series, their last title coming in 2017. The Samsung Lions have appeared in the most Korean Series, going 7-10, while the Bears are the current power, having appeared in five straight Korean Series, with titles in 2015, 2016 and 2019.
• Miami Marlins third-base coach Trey Hillman managed SK Wyverns to the Korean Series title in 2018, after also winning the Japan Series as manager of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2006. He also managed the Kansas City Royals from 2008 to early 2010, making him the only person to manage in Korea, Japan and MLB.
• Before the ball was de-juiced in 2019, the KBO was kind of like the Bonds-McGwire-Sosa era in the majors, only even more ridiculous. In 2016, the league averaged 5.61 runs per game, and only seven starting pitchers had an ERA under 4.00. In 2014, it averaged 5.62 runs per game. MLB scoring in the steroids era peaked at 5.14 runs per game in 2000 (5.30 in the American League).
Thames played three seasons in the KBO during that era, and his MVP season was a monster: .381/.497/.790 with 47 home runs and 140 RBIs in 142 games. He led the league in batting average and OPS, although Byung-Ho Park led in home runs (53) and RBIs (146).
• Apparently, the Lotte Giants are kind of like the Marlins of the KBO. Maybe that’s not fair; Miami, after all, has won two World Series. But so have the Giants! The Giants have been mostly horrible in recent seasons, however, other than a playoff appearance in 2017, and had a last-place finish in 2019. After the 2014 season, it was revealed the team had been spying on its own players on road trips, installing cameras in hotel rooms. — David Schoenfield