It’s 1930 in South Korea’s KBO
In major league baseball history, 1930 was the year of the hitter. Out of 16 major league teams, only two qualifiers had ERAs below 3.00, Hall of Famers Lefty Grove and Dazzy Vance (they led their respective leagues by huge margins), 14 players had an OPS over 1.000, and Bill Terry became the last National Leaguer to bat .400 in a season.
The major leagues in 1930 had nothing on the KBO this year. A nine-team circuit, the KBO currently has five players batting better than .360, ten players with an OPS over 1.000 and zero qualifying pitchers with ERAs under 3.00.
The KBO plays in small ballparks and South Korea enjoys hot summer weather, both of which tend to favor the hitters. By its own perception, the KBO assumes that South Korea produces an excess of good hitters to good pitchers. Until this season, when the number of foreign players on each roster was increased from two to three, at least one of whom has to be a position player, KBO teams had gotten in the habit of signing nothing but foreign pitchers. In fact, with the exceptions of Ryu Hyun-jin and Yoon Suk-Min, the most successful of these foreign pitchers tended to be the league’s best starters.
I’m doubtful that South Korea’s hitters are really that much ahead of its pitchers — I think it has more to do with ballpark effects than an inability to produce good pitchers. However, the perception is what it is.
Today I read a very good short essay by former San Francisco Giant and three season KBO veteran Ryan Sadowski on mykbo.net, in which Sadowski talks about the fact that scouting in the KBO is behind that in MLB, where more and more teams are effectively mixing traditional scouting (visual analysis and measurement of players’ “tools”) and sabrmetric statistical evaluation to determine the value of players. The piece is both concise and at the same time full of content useful not just to understanding the state of player evaluation in the KBO, but also in MLB.
He raises a point that I’ve heard before, namely that defense is probably the biggest difference between MLB and KBO. In other words, the relative level of defensive play in MLB compared to KBO is greater than the differences in hitting ability or pitching ability.
Specifically, he sites the fact that defensive efficiency ratios (DER) for MLB teams average about .690 which means that about 69% of balls hit in play become outs. He estimates in KBO that the average DER is probably only .650 or 65% of balls in play are turned into outs. He notes that of the of the top 14 major league teams in terms of DER this season, 12 currently have winning records.
His conclusion is that KBO teams generally made a mistake this year by signing foreign position players based mainly on their perceived ability to hit for power. As a result, the KBO largely signed a bunch of 1Bmen who don’t play defense, when the KBO already has a plethora of Korean-born players with the same skill sets. Instead, he concludes KBO teams would probably gain more Wins Above Replacement (WAR) if they focused on signing foreign position players based on their defensive skills at least as much as their hitting skills.
This was a money-ball undervaluing that the Oakland A’s Billy Beane was reported to have discovered about five years around the time the A’s signed Coco Crisp, who was the poster boy for the undervalued high defensive value (and some offensive value) player. (In an aside, I note that Billy Beane’s successful money-ball teams really don’t look all that different from the teams the A’s had from about 1970 through 1976: both sets of teams had pitching, played defense, hit for power and got on base. Good teams haven’t necessarily changed all that much; what has changed is a better understanding of what makes some teams better than others.)
Anyway, Sadowski’s brief essay is well worth reading, and I admire the fact that he printed it in both English and Korean, so that the decision-makers in the KBO will be more likely to read it.