The best and worst of Korean baseballExperts on Korean baseball like to say that winning the first 25 to 30 games is a sure ticket to the postseason. Eight teams are trying to board that train, which has only four seats.
At the front of the line are the Kia Tigers, equipped with deep hitting power; the Hyundai Unicorns, armed with good batting and pitching, and the SK Wyverns, who have the league’s best pitching.
Behind them are three teams competing for the last seat: the LG Twins, Samsung Lions and Hanwha Eagles.
Experts analyzed the teams in this season’s Korean Baseball League, prior to Sunday’s opening day. The group consisted of two former team managers, three TV sports commentators and a JoongAng Ilbo reporter. They looked at factors such as teams’ hitting and pitching strength, winter camp results and exhibition games.
Everyone concurred that Kia has the most powerful batting lineup, with new arrival Ma Hae-young adding heavy artillery, and Lee Chong-bum and Kim Chong-kuk providing motivational support. Coming out of free agency status, Park Jae-hong and Sim Hae-hak are expected to bring additional firepower to Kia’s arsenal.
But hitting isn’t always enough, as we all know. Some say the Hyundai Unicorns can lead the league with their fine-tuned blend of pitching and slugging.
Former SK manager Kim Seung-keun, one of the analysts, continues to root for his club. “Lee Sang-hoon will end games well. Also, we [SK] have a superior bullpen,” he said.
The analysts predict that either LG or Samsung will win the last berth in the semifinals. While four of the six experts said LG would beat Samsung, two of those four also thought Samsung’s pitching was superior.
The season’s dark horse is the Hanwha Eagles.
“The Hanwha Eagles’ hitting lineup is as strong as Kia’s and Hyundai’s,” said SBS-TV’s Park No-jun, who also noted that the Eagles’ three starting pitchers are all recovering from surgery.
At the bottom are the Doosan Bears and Lotte Giants. But, as former Doosan manager Kim Sung-keun put it, “Who can be 100 percent sure of the final winner? No one.”
The foreigners on the Korean baseball rosters are expected to make an impact, analysts say.
But Al Martin of the LG Twins, the KBO’s first player straight from the majors, did not impress reviewers; the designated hitter delivered only seven hits during 32 at-bats in the preseason.
Samsung’s Troy O’Leary also lost his manager’s faith after requesting an early leave. It seems O’Leary was a bit homesick, not being able to stomach Korea’s fiery cuisine and general atmosphere. But his issues seem to have been resolved, after promises of more American-style food and other changes.
SK pitcher Jose Cabrera may not be on the official roster, but during the preseason he pitched 12 innings and gave up just three runs.
Former Dodgers player Angel Pena, with Hanwha, also satisfied his team’s bosses with 11 hits in 39 preseason at-bats.
Other foreign players such as Tilson Brito with SK, Jay Davis of Hanwha and Mike Fyhrie of Hyundai have likewise shown promising results in exhibition games.
Amid a dearth of new players, the few blue chips are easy to pick out. Recent high school graduate Song Chang-sik had 17 strikeouts in the preseason, thanks in large part to his 150 km/h delivery, but he still has more to learn, as he gave up 13 runs in 16 innings.
Kim Tae-wan at LG is the most eye-catching player. He got the attention of manager Lee Soon-chul with his 13 hits in 39 at-bats, for a .333 batting average, the sixth-highest in the league during preseason.
by Kim Jong-mun, Namgung Wook