Triple Crown threats battling for the MVPCheck out the records sections of many sports Web sites, and you’ll see the faces of the leaders of each category next to their numbers.
On the home page of the Korea Baseball Organization (www.koreabaseball.or.kr) this year, you will find the face of only one player under the major pitching categories and just one in the hitting statistics. The two players could each win the Triple Crown ― but only one can be the league’s most valuable player.
Hanwha Eagles’ first-year starter Ryu Hyun-jin is threatening to become the first winner of the pitching Triple Crown in Korea in 15 years, as the leader in wins, strikeouts and earned run average. He is a shoo-in for the top rookie award.
Lotte Giants’ slugger Lee Dae-ho is also leading in the three major categories for hitters ― batting average, home runs and runs batted in.
Let’s take a look at the two leading candidates’ chances for the top individual honors.
by Yoo Jee-ho
Who will win? As good a season as Lee is having, it’s difficult to ignore the impact Ryu has had on the Eagles as a rookie out of high school. By the season’s end, he will likely have broken all meaningful rookie pitching records. All season long, Ryu has made hitters look like baffled algebra students staring at equations on blackboards. Has Lee, with 25 homers, put the same kind of fear in pitchers? Prediction: Ryu.
* The Triple Crown factor: On the hitting side, infielder Lee, 24, was leading in the triple crown categories ― home runs, batting average and RBI ― through Sunday. He is looking to become the first hitter to win the batting triple crown in Korea since catcher Lee Man-soo, currently a bullpen catcher with the Chicago White Sox, did so 22 years ago.
* The numbers-don’t-lie factor: Lee is also first in slugging percentage, second in hits, fourth in on-base percentage and fifth in runs scored. Any questions?
* The marketing factor: An official with the Giants told Busan Ilbo that when Son Min-han won last year’s MVP for the Giants, the team spoke to nearly 100 media outlets across the nation to push his case.
The official then said that right after the season’s conclusion, Lee will shoot commercials for products by Lotte’s affiliates, and will appear in various charity events. The Eagles have not announced any similar plans for Ryu.
2) The case against:
* The losing team factor: Through Sunday, Lee’s Giants were 16 games under .500. The Giants will miss their seventh straight postseason, and 10 of the last 11 overall.
How valuable is a player who can’t get his team to the playoffs? Not much, voters have said. In the past, only three players won the MVP for a losing team.
* The power outage factor: Lee had 25 homers and 85 RBI through Sunday with 11 games left.
The last time a home run leader had fewer than 30 was in 1995, when the Bears’ Kim Sang-ho hit 25.
Another year back, the last time an RBI leader had fewer than 100 was the Lions’ Yang Joon-hyuk, who drove in 87.
* The precarious lead factor: Lee is almost as close to not winning any of the Triple Crown categories as he is to capturing the whole shebang.
As of Monday, Hyundai Unicorns’ Lee Taek-keun was just three-thousandth of a point behind in batting average. Dae-ho’s teammate Felix Jose is just three behind in home runs, and Yang trails Lee by six in RBI.
The Giants’ manager Kang Byung-cheol has said he would limit Lee’s at-bats to keep his batting title hopes alive, and that even when Lee doesn’t start, he could pinch hit with runners in scoring positions in late innings.
Lee to online outlet My Daily earlier this month: “All the talk about triple crown just gives me extra pressure I don’t need. And I am worried that if I think too much about the stats, I may start to force things and my swing will be messed up. I am not concerned about the MVP at this point. Let’s wait until after the season. I just want to get better each year.”
* The Triple Crown factor: Through Sunday, Ryu was leading the league in wins with 18, strikeouts with 196 and ERA at 2.19. He holds a comfortable lead in all those categories, and will likely become the first pitching Triple Crown winner since current Samsung Lions manager Sun Dong-yol did so in 1991. Sun accomplished the feat four times in his career.
* The gaudy statistics factor: In most cases, statistics are used the way a drunk might use a lamppost: for support, rather than illumination. But numbers do illuminate Ryu’s case. The 19-year-old lefty has tied the record for most wins by a rookie pitcher, set by Kim Kun-woo in 1986. Ryu already has the most strikeouts ever by a rookie starter. He might become only the sixth pitcher in Korean baseball to get more than 200 strikeouts in a season. He is also on pace to become the first rookie to pitch 200 innings and strike out 200 batters.
* The playoff factor: The Eagles were in third place through Sunday and will make the postseason for the second season in a row. The team has won 20 of Ryu’s 28 starts.
* The recent history factor: Though pitchers don’t often win the MVP here (more on that a bit later), the last two winners have been pitchers: the Giants’ starter Son Min-han last year and the Lions’ starter Bae Young-soo the year before. Plus, there is no Korean equivalent of the Cy Young Award in the major leagues in the United States. Pitchers that have exceptional seasons are usually recognized with MVP honors.
2) The case against:
* The history factor: No player in Korean baseball has won the MVP and the top rookie award in the same season. Also, despite the pitchers’ MVP winning streak, only four other pitchers had ever won the award before 2004. The league started in 1982.
* The Lee Dae-ho factor: The major reason that pitchers Bae and Son won the last two MVPs was that no Korean hitter had a particularly MVP-worthy season. American Larry Sutton led the league in home runs (35) and RBI (102), and was sixth in batting average in 2005. And the year before, Cliff Brumbaugh was tops in batting average at .343, along with 33 home runs and 105 RBI. However, only one foreign player, Tyrone Woods of the 1998 Bears, has ever won the MVP. This is not to dismiss the two previous winners’ seasons, but it’s hard to imagine someone having a season like Lee Dae-ho and not capturing the honors instead.
Ryu told reporters after a game last week: “My goal at the beginning of the season was to win 10 games. I am not too concerned about reaching 20 wins, though. I just want the rookie record [of 19 wins]. I’d like to win the MVP, and I’d be grateful if the voters award me the honors.”