Strike 1 for new KBO rules: Fewer homers

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Strike 1 for new KBO rules: Fewer homers

A rule change that was meant to speed up baseball games and make them more exciting for fans may have had an unintended effect - cutting down on the number of crowd-pleasing home runs.

Just before the start of preseason, the Korea Baseball Organization widened the strike zone by nine inches, about the width of a baseball. For batters, this has meant that pitches that would have been called balls a year ago are now considered strikes.

It seems to be throwing them off their stride. KBO players slammed home a record-setting 173 home runs in the first 72 games of last season. In the 71 games played so far this year, that’s been cut to 102, a per-game average change of 2.40 to 1.44.

Just look at the SK Wyverns, who topped the league with 166 homers last season. This year, the Wyverns have hit nine dingers in 18 games.

Or Kia Tigers slugger Choi Hee-seop, a patient and selective batter who last year ranked second in walks, with 96. Last year, he was one of the league’s leaders in home runs, with 33; this year he’s being called out on strikes more frequently, and has hit just one over the fence.

“I lost a bit of my stroke after the strike zone was widened,” Choi said. “I think I will need to be more aggressive at the plate.”

A renewed emphasis on pitching is contributing to the home-run dearth. With the Tigers’ success last year with foreigners Aquilino Lopez and Rick Guttormson, other clubs around the league looked to sign overseas pitchers instead of batters for this season. This time last year, four overseas players ranked in the league’s top 10 home-run hitters: Roberto Petagine, Karim Garcia, Victor Diaz and Cliff Brumbaugh. This season, overseas batters are a rarity, with Garcia and Doug Clark the only overseas positional players in the league.

It also doesn’t help that some of the top pitchers in the league are fresh and starting the season on a good note. The pitchers who played in the 2009 World Baseball Classic struggled in the early goings, but now they’re well-rested, and the KBO’s other rule change - the 12-second pitch count that dictates pitchers throw within 12 seconds of a batter stepping into the box, or face a called walk - hasn’t seemed to affect them much.

The league’s top officials are confident the number of home runs will bounce back.

“There is no correlation between the new strike zone and the drop in the number of home runs,” said KBO secretary general Lee Sang-il. “We have not seen any drops in other offensive categories, including hits and batting averages. It might be that the players are not in their peak form yet. The weather has been a bit cold this spring. I believe the number of home runs will return to its normal pace when the weather warms up.”

By Kim Hyo-kyung, Jason Kim []
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