MVP field whittled down to three outstanding talents

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MVP field whittled down to three outstanding talents

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Who will be the star of the show that is the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) this year?

Now with the end of the season drawing near, candidates for this year’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) honor have been narrowed down to three players: Dustin Nippert of the Doosan Bears, Choi Hyung-woo of the Samsung Lions and last year’s MVP, Eric Thames of the NC Dinos.

It’s indisputable that Nippert is the best pitcher in the KBO this season. As of Wednesday, he leads in three different categories: number of wins this season at 21, earned run average (ERA) at 2.92 and winning percentage at .875. He stands atop in those categories by a notable margin, which means the American pitcher is likely to take the Gold Glove in pitching this year.

Although he led the team to clinch last season’s Korean Series title, individual honors always eluded Nippert, despite his five seasons in the KBO. But this may well be his year.

In earned-run average (ERA), he leads his teammate Chang Won-jun by .33. In number of wins, Nippert has four more wins compared to Michael Bowden, another pitcher for the Bears. Finally, in terms of winning percentage, Choi Keum-kang and Eric Hacker, both from the NC Dinos, are trailing behind Nippert with .785 winning percentage.

Due to incessant injuries last season, Nippert had to settle for only six wins. His annual salary slipped from $1.5 million to $1.2 million.

But Nippert endured rehab over the offseason. As a result, he became the eldest player in the KBO to tally 20 wins at the age of 35. With that record in his pocket, Nippert also hopes to become the winningest foreign pitcher in the history of KBO. Previously, Danny Rios, former pitcher of the Bears, set the record with 22 wins in a single season.

An Kyeong-hyeon, baseball commentator for SBS Sports, said of Nippert, “He is well into his 30’s but he still has the power. He’s got a really good chance of taking this year’s MVP title for himself. Nippert was excellent this season but the Bears in general were very solid. Batters tallied runs and fielders showed outstanding performance.”

Min Hoon-ki, SPOTV commentator, added that Nippert more than deserves the honor. “When the team was in a skid,” he said, “Nippert put a stop to it and played a central role for the team. The MVP award should be given to, as indicated, the player with highest value. Nippert did make the most contribution to the team’s regular season pennant.”

Beside Nippert, Choi of the Lions stands out among batters as a possible MVP material. This year, as of Wednesday, Choi has batted .374 with 137 runs batted in (RBI) and 186 hits, top in the said categories among KBO batters.

Having already made a name for himself as a slugger, Choi’s key focus this year was contact rate. He began to use a lighter bat this year, which jacked up his swing speed and precision.

Choi, who becomes a free agent (FA) after this season, said, “I did not want anyone talking about how I tried to up my FA price. I just grabbed a lighter bat this season and began to hit better. My batting speed has definitely gone up.”

“Most of older batters have their batting forms fixed and it is difficult to change them,” said Song Jin-woo, a KBS N Sports commentator. “But Choi was not afraid of making changes.” Song went on to explain that while it is not easy to catch two birds with one stone, Choi has done just that, recording a high BA while cranking out over 30 home runs. As of Wednesday, Choi is ranked sixth in terms of homers.

At the age of 33, he still looks for a challenge and is considering taking a crack at the Major League or the Japanese League in the near future.

Thames, last season’s MVP, is irrefutably the best slugger in the KBO at the moment, ranked the highest in slugging categories with 40 home runs, 117 runs and a .676-slugging percentage. After hitting 47 homers last season, Thames became the first foreign player to tally more than 40 dingers for two straight years.

But it is questionable whether he will be able to gain the honor of becoming KBO MVP for two consecutive years.

“Forty home runs is an impressive number,” said Song. “But compared to last year, during which he was the first KBO player to join the 40-40 club, it looks like he does not have the same level of power as before.”

Thames had ups-and-downs this season, largely due to the fact that pitchers were more cautious when Thames stood at the plate. His slide peaked in September during which he batted a meager .179 while hitting only one homer. Suffering towards the end of the season will have a negative effect on Thames’ chances for the MVP.

BY PARK SO-YOUNG [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]
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