Baseball is back! Not in the United States yet, where we continue to wait for a safe return of MLB amid the coronavirus pandemic, but rather in South Korea, where they’ve made especially good progress in their efforts against the outbreak. On Tuesday afternoon (which was late Monday night here), the KBO opened its 2020 season — featuring a few former Oakland A’s.
The Korea Baseball Organization still expects to play its full 144-game season, albeit with some restrictions, reports R.J. Anderson of CBS. There won’t be any fans in the stands, and they’ll stop playing for at least three weeks if any player or coach becomes infected.
The KBO is one of the first major sports leagues in the world to get going this year, so if you want to follow some baseball then this is your chance for now. You can even watch some of it, as one game each night will be televised on ESPN2 and then re-aired the next day. It’s a 10-team league, which has emerged as one of the top circuits outside the U.S. and ranks roughly in between Double-A and Triple-A in quality. If you’d like to get the lay of the land, here’s some background info:
- KBO Wikidpedia page, for brief league history and logistics
- ESPN deep dive, including details of current season’s teams, storylines, etc.
- FanGraphs Part 1 and Part 2, introducing every former MLB player in the KBO
- MyKBOStats, with a more concise version of the foreign-born player list
- Sports Illustrated, with another version that includes foreign-born coaches
- MyKBOStats again, this time with the league scoreboard
- TrueBlueLA, with the TV schedule for the first week of games on ESPN2
A few highlights: Teams are allowed up to three foreign-born players, only two of whom can be pitchers. Everyone uses the DH, games are called ties if not settled after 12 innings, and bat flips are totally allowed. Like in Japan, teams are named after corporate owners instead of cities — the current heavyweights are Doosan, while historically Kia and Samsung have won the most titles. Also, Julio Franco is the Lotte Giants’ hitting coach.
For A’s fans, there are four familiar names to watch this season:
- Matt Williams, manager, Kia Tigers
- Dan Straily, RHP, Lotte Giants
- Aaron Brooks, RHP, Kia Tigers
- Raul Alcantara, RHP, Doosan Bears
Williams spent the last two seasons as the A’s third-base coach, in 2018-19, but now gets another chance to manage. He has previous experience as an MLB skipper, having managed the Nationals for a couple years before joining Oakland’s staff.
As for the players, Straily is by far the biggest name. He was with the A’s from 2012-14, and his big league experience includes 800 innings over eight seasons. Brooks is more of a replacement player, but last year he managed to throw 110 frames in the majors, with nearly half of them coming for Oakland in his second career stint there. Alcantara was once a top prospect in the A’s system and made his debut in 2016, but he never panned out at the MLB level; he’s still only 27 years old, though.
Here’s a snippet about each player from FanGraphs to catch you up:
Alcántara, like Flexen, had a brief cup of coffee in the majors before heading to Korea. Unlike Flexen, he went last year — he signed a one year deal with the KT Wiz. He was essentially a league average pitcher in 2019, and he did it by flooding the zone and daring batters to hit it. His 3.8% walk rate and 13.8% strikeout rate (the league averages are around 8% and 17% respectively) should tell you everything you need to know — he’s basically the KBO’s Kyle Hendricks. With a mid-90s fastball and a cutter/changeup combo to bracket it, he showed enough that the Bears signed him this offseason.
Brooks almost certainly had major league offers this offseason; given the state of major league bullpens, someone would take a chance on the low-90’s sinker and cromulent secondaries. But Matt Williams, who coached Brooks in the Oakland system, is now the Tigers’ manager, and the combination of familiarity and $679,000 were too much to resist. Brooks seems like he’ll fit in well in the contact-oriented KBO; he never walks anyone and keeps the ball on the ground.
How will he fare on the Giants? I have no clue. It’s not exactly breaking news that his game didn’t work in the majors in 2019, but the lower level of competition might suit him well; Straily lived in the zone when he was at his best, challenging hitters with his four-seamer and finishing them with his changeup. He fled the zone as batters started to catch up with the fastball, and the juggling act fell apart.
If he can avoid a severe case of the dingers while living at the top of the zone, he could put up eye-popping numbers — he’s one of the few pitchers in the KBO with a history of putting big leaguers away with aplomb. Of course, he could also be washed up — again, he had a 9.82 ERA last year and got released outright by the Marlins.
Straily and Alcantara each drew the Opening Day starts for their respective teams on Tuesday and both pitched reasonably well. Straily’s Giants beat the KT Wiz 7-2, while Alcantara’s quality outing was wasted as his Bears were defeated 8-2 by the LG Twins.
- Straily: 5⅔ ip, 2 runs, 4 Ks, 3 BB, 1 HR, 3 hits
- Alcantara: 6 ip, 3 runs, 3 Ks, 2 BB, 1 HR, 6 hits
Brooks did not pitch, as his Tigers fell 11-2 to the Kiwoom Heroes.
Welcome back, baseball. It’s not the league we follow nor the players we’re used to, but it’s something for now, and it’s a step in the right direction.