Ko Jong-wook eyes 20-20 season
And it’s the performances of his younger teammates that have fueled the 29-year-old Ko, now in his sixth Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) season.
Take the 19-year-old Lee Jung-hoo, for instance. The former high school shortstop won the Rookie of the Year in 2017 as an outfielder, while setting rookie records with 179 hits and 111 runs scored. He’s off to a solid start this year too, with a .316 batting average in 10 games.
Im Byeong-wuk, 22, is swinging an even hotter bat, with a team-high .378 batting average. His career high is .249 from two years ago.
“When Jung-hoo joined the team and became a regular last year, it sent a jolt through our outfield,” Ko said before the Heroes’ regular season game against the KT Wiz at Gocheok Sky Dome on Thursday. “Right now, he’s playing like a veteran and shows the savvy of someone who’s been around for more than 10 years. Byeong-wuk has been playing well this year, and it has really driven me.”
Ko has been no slouch himself at the plate. Through 14 games, Ko is batting .286 with three home runs, nine RBIs and three steals.
Those home run numbers stand out. Ko’s career high is 10 in 119 games in the 2015 season. He had eight in each of the past two years, while playing 133 games in 2016 and 123 in 2017.
The quick start this year puts Ko on a pace to achieve his first 20-20 season. Only three players last year had at least 20 homers and 20 steals. And as teams have shifted from making runs on the bases to trying to hit homers, only six players stole 20 bags in 2017, down from 10 in 2016 and 16 in 2015.
“I don’t even hit in the middle of the order, so I don’t really pay attention to home run totals,” Ko said. “But during spring training, I tried to start driving the ball better. I worked on improving my body rotation and launch angle. I hit a lot of ground balls in the preseason, and I am glad I’ve got three homers so far in the regular season.”
Ko has indeed been a ground ball hitter. Last year, he was 12th in the league in the ground ball-to-fly ball ratio with 1.31. This year, Ko has hit 10 ground balls compared with six fly balls, a ratio that ties him for eighth. But Nexen coaches say Ko is making harder contact than in past seasons.
“I am not necessarily trying to reduce my ground ball rate,” Ko said. “I want to hit more line drives and make hard contact on grounders so that they will get past infielders.”
Ko is a good bet to steal at least 20 bags and take care of that end in his bid to join the 20-20 club. Ko has averaged 22 steals over the past three years - 22 in 2015, 28 in 2016 and 16 last year.
In 2017, the Heroes as a team went in a different direction as far as steals. They had just 70 swipes last year to rank seventh, after leading the KBO with 154 in 2016.
“I am confident about my running game,” Ko said. “I’ll try to steal more than last year. I’d love to get to 20-20. If I reach 10 home runs this season, then we can talk more about it.”