We are all absolutely starving for baseball, now well over a month into what should have been MLB’s regular season. It goes without saying that the safety of the players, coaches, everyone else involved with the league and the public’s general health comes first and they should not come back until all of that can be as close to guaranteed as possible. That said, it’s possible to acknowledge that fact and still just miss baseball a lot and wish it was there to watch. It doesn’t make us selfish, it makes us human.
Well, we finally have some baseball to watch. The only catch is that it will be on while many of us are sleeping. ESPN has agreed to terms with the KBO, Korea Baseball Organization, which is of course one of the best leagues in the world. Essentially, it is a tier behind the NPB in Japan and at this point there have been plenty of major leaguers who have gone over and thrived in Korea, and plenty of players from the KBO who have come over to MLB. Josh Lindblom was the league’s MVP last year and subsequently signed a three-year deal with the Brewers. The games will typically be broadcast live at either 1:00 AM ET or 5:30 AM ET, though there will be replays on ESPN and ESPN 2 at times we’re awake as well.
Now, I will not lie to you and act as though I am an expert on the KBO. I have an awareness of the league, of course, but I have never actually sat down and watched a game — I’m watching the season-opener as I type this Tuesday morning — and am just familiar with the highlights and the bat flips. But I, like you, will be becoming a big-time KBO fan over the next couple months, and I wanted to be familiar with the league. I figured you might want to as well. So, I’m going to run through every team in the KBO — there are ten total — and quickly run through some things to know for each, including an incredibly uninformed comparison to an MLB team for each. I won’t pick the Red Sox for any, because that would feel like picking an official team of OTM and I won’t do that unilaterally. We can decide that in the comments.
Huge shoutout to ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Baseball Reference and Good Ol’ Wikipedia for help with this.
Titles: Six; Defending champs
2019 Result: 88-55 (1st place; Korea Series winners)
Red Sox Connection: Raúl Alcántara.
Alcántara was signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Red Sox back in 2010, but he wouldn’t spend much time in the organization. After the 2011 season, his first as a pro, he was traded along with Josh Reddick to the Athletics for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney. He did make it to the majors in 2016 and 2017, but last season made the move to Korea, playing for the KT Wiz. This will be his first season with Doosan.
Notable former MLBer: José Miguel Fernández
A former Cuban star, Fernández did get a brief stint with the Angels but has really thrived in the KBO. Last season he hit .344/.409/.483 with Doosan.
Notable non former MLBer: Jae-Hwan Kim
This might be a familiar name for some out there, as the outfielder was posted for free agency in MLB this past winter. He went unsigned, though, and will likely be back on the market next winter.
Totally Uninformed MLB Comp: Dodgers
This doesn’t make a ton of sense at first glance considering, well, they just won the World Series and the Dodgers haven’t been able to get over the hump. However, the comp still fits to me because Doosan has had a bunch of recent success and they are considered to be one of the best-run organizations in the KBO.
Titles: One; Last title in 1999
2019 Result: 58-86 (9th place)
Red Sox Connection: N/A
Notable former MLBer: Jared Hoying
Hoying was a former tenth round pick of the Rangers who hung around that organization for about eight years, getting a couple cups of coffee at the highest level. He made the move over to Korea in 2018 and is about to start his third year for Hanwha. Last season he hit .284/.340/.460.
Notable non-former MLBer: Seong-yeol Lee
Lee is one of the veterans over in the KBO, having been in the league since 1999 as a 19-year-old. He’s a corner outfielder/first baseman these days, and hit .256/.343/.464 in 2019.
Totally Uninformed MLB Comp: Mariners
Again, not a perfect comp because the Eagles have won, but I’m sticking with this one. Hanwha is known as the lovable losers of the KBO, which is a title that used to belong to the Cubs but no longer. To me, that title now belongs to the Mariners, but whoever you consider your lovable loser franchise can apply here.
Titles: Eight; Last title in 2017
2019 Result: 62-80 (7th place)
Red Sox Connection: N/A
Notable former MLBer: Preston Tucker
Tucker was a seventh round pick by the Astros back in 2012, eventually making it to the majors in 2015. He played for parts of three seasons with the Astros, Braves and Reds for a total of 243 games at the highest level. This will be his second season with the Tigers, hitting .311/.381/.479 last year.
Notable non-former MLBer: Hyeon-Jong Yang
The league MVP in 2017, Yang is one of the top pitchers in the KBO. He’s been with Kia for his entire career, which spans back to 2007, and is still rolling in his career. He pitched to a 2.29 ERA last season, which is still extremely impressive even with the depressed offensive environment in 2019 relative to KBO history.
Totally Uninformed MLB Comp: Yankees
This is the easy comp. Kia spends a ton of money, has had plenty of success in their history and have a massive fan base.
Titles: None; Joined in 2008
2019 Result: 86-57 (3rd; lost in Korea Series)
Red Sox Connection: N/A
Notable former MLBer: Byung-Ho Park
Not all of the former MLBers are foreign players in Korea. Park was one of the stars of the KBO and tried to come transfer that success to the majors with the Twins. His two-year stint in 2016 and 2017 didn’t go according to plan, and he’s been back to raking in the KBO for the last two seasons. Last year he hit .280/.398/.560.
Notable non-former MLBer: Jung-hoo Lee
Lee is a young talent, if that’s your sort of thing. The son of a former KBO MVP, Lee won Rookie of the Year out of high school in 2017 and thrived last season, which was his first as a Hero. (Incredible team name, by the way.) He hit .336/.386/.456, and he’s out there looking for a base knock every time up.
Totally Uninformed MLB Comp: Rays
This one pains me to say because based on the very little I know, this seems like it will be my favorite team. They play a fun, aggressive style and have a lot of younger talent. They are also a new team who has yet to make it over the top, but have gotten close. Sounds like the Rays to me.
Titles: None; Joined in 2015
2019 Result: 71-71 (6th Place)
Red Sox Connection: William Cuevas
Cuevas was signed by the Red Sox out of Venezuela in the summer of 2008, making his way all the way up the ladder with the organization. His eventual major-league debut came in 2016 and he made three appearances with the team. He became a free agent after the year and signed with the Tigers. He came back to Boston in 2018 and made some appearances down the stretch after rosters expanded. Last season was his first in the KBO, pitching to a 3.62 ERA.
Notable former MLBer: Jae-gyun Hwang
Another player who went from the KBO to the majors and then back to the KBO, Hwang signed with the Giants in 2017. He spent just one year with San Francisco and last season he hit .283/.357/.467 for the Wiz.
Totally Uninformed MLB Comp: Marlins
The Marlins are obviously not as new as the Wiz and they also have a couple of titles under their belt. However, looking at things from a more recent lens, KT is young and has never made the playoffs. They are a bit closer than the Marlins, though. I’ll be honest, I had some trouble with this one.
Titles: Two; Last title in 1994
2019 Result: 79-64 (4th, lost in quarterfinals)
Red Sox Connection: Casey Kelly
Kelly is the most notable former Red Sox player in the KBO. The former top prospect of course never panned out in the majors and was part of one of the biggest trades in Red Sox history, as he was in the package that brought Adrian Gonzalez to Boston. This will be his second season with LG after pitching to a 2.55 ERA last season.
Notable former MLBer: Hyun-Soo Kim
This name is likely familiar to some Red Sox fans. The longtime KBO star got some time in the AL East not all that long ago, playing with the Orioles in 2016 and 2017. He was pretty good in that first year, too, finishing with a 116 OPS+. He struggled mightily in 2017, though, and was eventually traded to the Phillies before heading back to Korea for the 2018 season.
Notable non-former MLBer: Hyeong-jong Lee
LG seemed to be dominated by former major leaguers last year, but Lee was their top player who hasn’t made it overseas. Woo-suk Koo, their closer, was also very good.
Totally Uninformed MLB Comp: Braves
I’m going franchise trajectory here. LG was very good throughout the ‘90s, winning one more title than the Braves. Then they had a bit of a downturn in the aughts while they were rebuilding. More recently, they’ve turned it around but haven’t gotten back over the hump just yet.
Titles: Two; Last in 1992
2019 Results: 48-93 (10th place)
Red Sox Connection: Seung-Jun Song
Hat tip to Chris Hatfield for catching this one, as I did not in my initial research. Song is a former top prospect from a long time ago, originally signing with the Red Sox in 1999. By 2002 he was a top 100 prospect an played in the Futures Game, but that summer he was traded to the Expos in a deal that brought Cliff Floyd to the Red Sox. He’s now less than two months from his 40th birthday, but he’s still pitching in the KBO.
Notable former MLBer: Dan Straily
Straily is one of the most notable new arrivals to the KBO this year. Straily was certainly never a star in the majors, but he had a very solid career in the States, pitching to a solid average 100 ERA+ from 2016-2018 while averaging 29 starts per season. He’ll look to rebuild some value in the KBO now for a couple of years.
Notable non-former MLBer: Jun-woo Jeon
Jeon has been a big-time piece for the Giants for a long time now, and has been one of their better players for a few years now. Last season he hit .301/.359/.481.
Totally Uninformed MLB Comp: Pirates
This is not a perfect comp, largely because these teams act very differently. The Giants spent a ton of money last season, something the Pirates have never done. However, things did not work out, indicating a poor front office. They also just switched regimes for a more new-school approach. The Pirates, of course, just recently hired Ben Cherington.
Titles: None; Joined in 2013
2019 Result: 73-69 (5th place, lost in Wild Card)
Red Sox Connection: N/A
Notable former MLBer: Aaron Altherr
Another one of the most notable newcomers to the KBO this year, Altherr spent a long time in the Phillies outfield. He was kind of squeezed out by additions in recent years, but he seems like a guy who could pull something like an Eric Thames and be back in the majors in a few years.
Notable non-former MLBer: Eui-Ji Yang
Yang was the runner-up in MVP voting last season. The catcher was outstanding in his first year with the Dinos, hitting .354/.438/.574.
Totally Uninformed MLB Comp: Diamondbacks
This is another one I had some struggles with. This is a newer franchise who hasn’t gotten over the hump but has had some recent success.
Titles: 15; Last title in 2015
2019 Result: 60-83 (7th place)
Red Sox Connection: N/A
Notable former MLBer: Tyler Saladino
Saladino is another newcomer to the KBO, having played in the majors just last season, albeit for just a few games. He spent most of his MLB career as a utility man, most notably in 2016 when he finished with a 98 OPS+ in 93 games.
Notable non-former MLBer: Ja-Wook Koo
Koo is coming off more of a mediocre season, hitting .267/.327/.444, but he was a big-time hitter with an OPS over .900 in each of his first four seasons before 2019.
Totall Uninformed MLB Comp: Giants
Given the sheer number of titles, the Yankees would seem to be the comp here. However, I already used them. Plus, Samsung has been bad in recent years. So I’m going with the Giants since the Lions also dominated the first half of the 2010s but are now on a downward trend.
Titles: Four; Last title in 2018
2019 Result: 88-55 (2nd place, lost in semifinals)
Red Sox Connection: N/A
Notable former MLBer: Jamie Romak
There’s not a ton of foreign talent on this roster, with Romak really being it. A former Dodger and Padre, he played in just 27 major-league games with 39 plate appearances. Last season he hit .276/.370/.508 with SK.
Notable non-former MLBer: Jeong Choi
Choi is one of the most famous and notable players in Korea, having been in the KBO now for 15 seasons, all with the Wyverns. He’s also starred for Korea in a couple of World Baseball Classics. Last season he hit .292/.399/.519.
Totally Uninformed MLB Comp: Cardinals
From what I gather, SK just seems to be solid year in and year out and mixes in some championships here and there. Sounds like the Cards to me.