KBO teams are set for a new season
And the league is bigger than ever after the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) welcomed KT Wiz as its 10th club. With the new franchise added in, each club will play 144 games this year, up from 128 last year.
In addition, the KBO said that a total of 628 players are registered for this year, which is the most in the league’s history. Among them, 302, or 48 percent, are pitchers.
With the increase in games, the KBO is expecting to see 8 million fans come out to the stadium this season.
Attendance at KBO games has been cooling off since reaching a high of 7.14 million fans in 2002. In 2013, annual attendance was 6.44 million and last year it was 6.5 million.
The 2015 KBO season, which will be sponsored by local tire distributor Tirebank, will begin at 2 p.m. on Saturday with all 10 clubs in action. Defending champion Samsung Lions hosts SK Wyverns, while Doosan Bears will meet NC Dinos and Nexen Heroes face Hanwha Eagles on their home ground in Seoul. LG Twins will play Kia Tigers, while Lotte Giants will go head-to-head against KT Wiz.
To bring in more fans and improve the quality of the game, the 2015 KBO League has adopted several changes for the year.
The first change was the postseason format. Previously, the top four teams in the regular season went on to the postseason. But this year, the fourth-ranked team will have to play against the fifth-place team in what’s called a wildcard series to then go on to face the No. 3 ranked team.
In the wildcard series, the fourth-seeded team will have the home field advantage and will be given a one-win advantage, meaning a single win or tie will allow the fourth ranked team to move up to the next round, while the fifth ranked would have to win two straight games to advance.
To boost game quality, KBO has expanded each team’s active roster from 26 to 27 players. But like last year, only 25 can be used per game.
For rookie club KT Wiz, the KBO allowed a one-man advantage, meaning it can register 28 players and 26 can play in one game. The Suwon-based club has also been permitted to have four foreign players on its roster and field three at a time.
To make the pace of the play quicker, the KBO revised its so-called speed up rule. Last year, games lasted an average of three hours and 27 minutes, the longest ever, and the organizer’s goal is to reduce the length by at least 10 minutes.
A pitching change during an inning must be completed in less than 2 minutes and 30 seconds, which is 15 seconds shorter than the previous rule, and the batter’s theme song, which is played when the batter walks out on the field, must be 10 seconds or less.
In addition, if a batter is hit by a pitch or walked, he must run to first base and then remove his protective gear. Managers are also not allowed to accompany assistant coaches when making appeals to umpires.
Furthermore, the revised rule also states that the batter must keep at least one foot in the batter’s box once he steps into it. Previously, the KBO imposed an extra strike on the batter for a violation, but after complaints and concerns during preseason games, it has decided to impose a fine of 200,000 won ($180) per violation. The collected fines will be used to fund youth baseball programs.
KBO said that its efforts to save time are already working. According to the KBO, the average preseason game this year took 2 hours and 49 minutes, 12 minutes faster than in 2014.
To keep fans entertained all day, the KBO has scheduled 10 Sunday games in April, May and September to start at 5 p.m., and the rest will keep the usual 2 p.m. start time. The league will announce more 5 p.m. Sunday games as the season progresses.
In the new season, analysts are again picking the four-time defending champions Samsung Lions as the favorite, despite the team’s five wins and seven losses in preseason games. The Daegu-based club is looking for an unprecedented fifth consecutive title, under Manager Ryu Joong-il.
The Lions lost Dutch ace Rick van den Hurk to Japan’s Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and veteran starter Bae Young-soo and lefty reliever Kwon Hyuk signed with Hanwha Eagles. However, the team is still considered to be solid on the mound, and its offense also remains atop.
The Lions last year had a team batting average of 0.301, the best in the league, while marking 161 home runs, the second best in the league. After signing a new deal with Dominican slugger Yamaico Navarro, the team is expected to show off its batting power after having the best average during the preseason.
“After our experience in the preseason, there seems to be no easy team,” Manager Ryu said at the KBO media event on Monday. “I think SK [Wyverns] and Nexen [Heroes] are likely to be our challengers.”
Nexen Heroes, the runner-up in both the regular season and postseason, have a big void to fill after hard-hitting shortstop Kang Jung-ho left for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Major League Baseball. However, the team has kept slugger Park Byung-ho, who has been leading the league in home runs and RBIs for the past three years, and second baseman Seo Geon-chang, who was the 2014 MVP with a league record 201 hits and had the best batting average at .370.
The addition of Brad Snyder, who was with the LG Twins last year, will also boost the Heroes offense.
Experts said the key for the Heroes this season will be how the Korean starting pitchers perform alongside the two lefty foreign pitchers - Andy Van Hekken, who had 20 wins last year and won the Golden Glove award, and the newly signed Ryan Feierabend who was formerly with the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers in the MLB.
“We conducted some role changes, focusing on the starting pitcher position,” Heroes manager Yeom Kyung-yup said.
SK Wyverns, which failed to make the playoffs the past two years, are looking to fly again under new manager Kim Yong-hee. Though they were able to keep their free agent players on new deals, the Incheon-based club will get the biggest boost in the bullpen as Jeong Woo-ram, two-time champion in holds, returns after finishing his military duty.
The only thing worrying for the Wyverns is that center-fielder Kim Kang-min will be out for at least two months at the beginning of the season due to a knee injury.
“Samsung is like a big mountain that you can’t climb up easily,” Wyverns manager Kim said. “But it is a big achievement when you conquer that big mountain, so we want to try it.”
Doosan Bears, also with a new manager, Kim Tae-hyung, is considered to be a challenger to the Lions this season because of its solid lineup of starting pitchers. The team, which finished sixth last season, acquired lefty pitcher Jang Won-jun from Lotte Giants, who will add his power to that of Dustin Nippert, Yunieski Maya and Yoo Hee-kwan.
However, the Bears’ starting pitcher Lee Hyun-seung fractured his finger and will be out for at least a month. Questions also remain for the team regarding its bullpen and closing pitcher.
“Our goal is to be inside the top four and win the championship,” manager Kim said. “Although there are some injuries among our pitchers, we hope to win at least half of our games in April.”
LG Twins and NC Dinos, who both made it to the postseason last season are expected to go that far again this year.
The Twins best aspect is its strong bullpen with lefty Bong Jung-keun serving as closer. However, its competiveness in starting pitchers and batting are still questionable as right hander Ryu Jae-kuk, and veteran third baseman Jack Hannahan are both dealing with injuries.
The Dinos, now in their third year in the top league, are counting on their young players will perform better. The Changwon-based club is said to have good offense, highlighted by Na Sung-bum and Eric Thames, but their pitching could fall short even though Charlie Shirek and Eric Hacker stayed on.
“We have players that have potential, so I’m thinking of running this team more aggressively,” said Dinos manager Kim Kyung-moon. “We will play more delicately than last season.”
The Lotte Giants are hoping to win back the support of their fans after the club’s image was spoiled by after its management was accused of illegal surveillance of its players. For a fresh start, the Giants appointed their former player Lee Jong-woon as manager.
Lee’s task will be to make up for the loss of lefty ace Jang Won-jun, who signed with the Bears, and Kim Sa-yul who is now with KT Wiz. The team hopes starting pitcher Cho Jung-hun, who is returning to the mound after a four-year absence for injuries and military duty, will recover his old form and that new signee Chung Jae-hun from the Bears will take care of the relief job.
Kia Tigers, which finished eighth in 2014, is betting high on right hander Yun Suk-min, who returned from the Baltimore Orioles after a disappointing season in the minors.
Manager Kim Ki-tae has yet to decide which role Yun will take, but whether he’s a starter or closer, the 2011 MVP is a big boost to the Tigers’ mound. The teams starting lineup also features are lefty Yang Hyeon-jong and newly signed Philip Humber, who is best known for throwing a perfect game for the Chicago White Sox against the Seattle Mariners in 2012.
However, losing the combination of An Chi-hong and Kim Sun-bin to the military and center-fielder Lee Dae-hyung to KT Wiz will be a big blow to the Tigers’ center line.
The Hanwha Eagles are so intriguing club that pundits are split on how the club will perform. The Daejeon-based team was the worst in five of the past six years, but to turn the tide, the Eagles brought on Kim Sung-keun, nicknamed “Baseball God,” as their new manager. Kim, who led the Wyverns to three championship titles between 2007 and 2011, is returning to the top baseball division for the first time in four years.
Along with the 72-year-old manager, who is known for enforcing intense training, the Eagles acquired Bae Young-soo, Kwon Hyuk and Song Eun-beom to pitch. Although the team also finished bottom in the preseason, fans are hoping Kim will transform the Eagles’ “losing DNA.” In his first year with past clubs, Kim led each one to the postseason.
“Through spring camp and preseason games, I found out why our team is at the league’s bottom,” Kim said. “Any team has the power to win and I think the Eagles also have the power to win the championship.”
The KT Wiz, making its KBO League debut after spending two seasons in the Futures League, is widely expected to stay at the bottom of the league because its squad is less experienced.
The Suwon-based club, managed by Cho Bum-hyun who led the Tigers to the 2009 KBO championship, is hoping its experienced players like Jang Sung-ho, Kim Sang-hyeon and Lee Dae-hyung will step up to lead the younger ones.
“As a rookie team, we will play with ambition and a hard-working spirit,” Cho said.
BY JOO KYUNG-DON [email@example.com]