The baseball crazed population of the United States has been provided a lifeline with ESPN’s acquiring of TV rights to show the Korea Baseball Organization. With the first week’s worth of televised games in the books, reception in the United States has been mostly positive, with the KBO scratching that baseball itch many have craved in the absence of Major League Baseball.
There are quite a few pulling factors the KBO has that made it an interesting attraction in its own right. The quality of play isn’t quite MLB caliber, or even the caliber of the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball League, but is akin to that of Triple A baseball. However, there are vast differences in the style of play.
A greater emphasis on fundamentals is in place with a lot of bunting, contact hitting and high groundball rates from pitchers. There are very few pitchers in the KBO with elite material, as most rely on crafty pitching and a lot of off-speed pitches. Average fastball velocity sits around 92 mph at this time. When a player does hit a home run though, there will be bat flips. This is what the KBO has known for in the past and it has stayed steady through this season as well.
The rules are slightly different than the MLB. For example, after the 12th inning in extra innings, games will end in a tie. In addition, the designated hitter role is universal and only three foreign players are allowed on a single roster. The league has ten teams and as such, there is no divisional play. The teams with the five best records at the end of the season make the playoffs to play for their World Series equivalent: The Korean Series.
With the three foreign player rule in effect in the league, the foreign players usually fill roles as parts of the pitching staff and as power hitters. Notable players include Eric Thames, who currently plays for the Washington Nationals. Thames was a force in the KBO, especially during his MVP year in 2015, where he slashed .381/.503/.790; enough for a 1.294 OPS while hitting 47 home runs and driving in 140 runs. Current notable pitchers include Dan Straily, Adrian Sampson, Odrisamer Despaigne, Nick Kingham, Tyler Wilson and Warwick Saupold.
There are quite a few big league hitters who have made their way over to the KBO as well. Former Phillies and Mets outfielder Aaron Altherr and former Astros prospect Preston Tucker are both in their first KBO season. Former Pittsburgh Pirates third round pick Mel Rojas Jr. has carved out a role as one of the league’s best power hitters with 57 extra base hits and 104 RBI with the KT Wiz. Former San Diego Padres first baseman Jamie Romak has found himself in the same niche, playing for the SK Wyverns and hitting 29 home runs and 28 doubles in 2019 while driving in 95 runs. San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks legend Matt Williams also serves as manager of the KIA Tigers.
The KBO has its own homegrown stars to cheer for as well. KT Wiz left fielder Baek-Ho Kang is only 20, and was 5th in the KBO in OPS with .911. In addition, 24-year old shortstop Ha-Seong Kim slashed .292/.368/.487 and is getting some early attention from MLB scouts. Scott Boras client Sung-Bum Na is also another name to watch in the MLB sphere, as he boasts a lifetime .315/.383/.533 slash line and could look to make the jump to the majors in the near future. Hyeong-Jong Yang is a lights left-handed pitcher for the KIA Tigers and sported a 2.29 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 184.2 innings to go along with his signature glasses he always wears.
The KBO is a unique spectating experience for the baseball fan in everyone here in the United States. If the lack of MLB is wearing on you, the KBO is a more than suitable replacement worth keeping up with, even after the MLB does return.