Archive for October 2016

Major League Players’ Pension Benefits

October 26, 2016

Early in my career as a lawyer, I represented employee benefit plans, both health care and pension plans.  As such, I’ve long been interested in the specifics of what kind of pension benefits major league players earn and the terms of those benefits.  It has been a surprisingly difficult question to get a clear answer on.

First, there are two key issues in any union-employer pension plan: (1) accrual of benefit; and (2) vesting of benefit.  A pension benefit accrues based on the amount of money you earn over a period of time.  Vesting of the benefit occurs after the completion of a designated period of work service, most often but not always in years, that entitles the worker to actually receive the pension benefits he has accrued.

For most union-employer pension plans, benefits accrue each year that the worker earns a certain minimum amount of money, and the specific amount of the pension benefit at retirement age is typically determined by the amount of money the worker has earned in his peak earning years and his or her number of years of service under the pension plan.  However, a pension benefit typically does not vest until either (1) after five full years of service, at which time the accrued benefit becomes 100% vested, which is called cliff vesting; 0r (2) vests at a rate of 20% per year over three to seven years of service, which is called graduated vesting.  In other words, for a graduated vesting plan, the worker vests in his benefit 20% after three full years of service, 40% after four years, 60% after five years until 100% vested after seven years of service.

At the time that the MLB players elected to form a truly independent labor union in 1966, the players had a pre-existing pension plan which vested after five full years of major league service.  While that does not sound like a lot of service, many, many major league players did not meet this requirement, because if they were not stars, they often spent part of every season in the minor leagues where they did not earn any MLB service time.

Bobby Tiefenauer, who pitched in parts of ten different major league seasons through 1968, is an example of a player with an extensive major league career who still had not reached five full years of major league service as of his last major league game.  However, before the 1969 season, the players’ association negotiated eligibility down to four full seasons retroactive for all major players back to 1947.

The four full-year service requirement lasted in the MLB players pension plan until 1980.  As of April 1, 1980, a major league player vests in his pension plan after only one day of major league service, i.e., one day on a major league team’s 25-man active roster.  However, that leaves open the question of when a major league player begins to accrue a benefit, such that he actually receives a pension benefit when he reaches earliest retirement age, which I understand is 45 years of age for former MLB players.

This is a question I have been trying for years to get a clear answer on without great success.  Many websites purport to state the requirements, but they frequently contain obvious errors which conflate or confuse the difference between vesting of benefit and accrual of benefit that have left me less than convinced of the accuracy of their representations.  I have even written a couple of emails to the MLB Players Association to get an answer, but they’ve never responded to my emails.

The most likely answer is as follows.  Players accrue MLB pension benefits for each quarter of a major league season they are on a 25-man roster or on the major league disabled list.  A quarter of a major league season is 43 days.  Therefore, in order to accrue a benefit, a player must earn at least 43 days of service time in order to earn their first quarter-season of accrued service time.  According to a couple of on-line sources, including this article from mlb.com in 2011, as of 2010, a player who accrued the 43-day minimum service time would earn a $34,000 annual pension starting at the full retirement age of 62.

After ten years of major league service, a player can earn the maximum annual benefit under a defined benefit pension plan (the MLB players’ plan is a defined benefit plan, as opposed to a defined contribution plan), which under federal law is $210,000 in 2016, increasing to $215,000 in 2017.  Whether many current MLB player retirees age 62 or older earn this amount is an open question, since salaries were obviously a lot lower for former players now in their 60’s.  I would guess that Dave Winfield, who is now 65 and made a lot of money in his major league career, is earning the maximum permissible benefit under federal law, but how many others are I could not say.

A 43-day service requirement still means that a large number of players who have brief major league careers do not receive a major league pension.  There is a pension plan for minor league players.  However, for most minor league players who don’t manage enough major league service for a major league pension, the minor league plan at best provides only a few hundred dollars a month or less of benefits at retirement age.  Better than a sharp stick in the eye, but hardly enough to retire on by itself.

However, even one day of major league service brings with it certain long-term benefits.  According to this article from Business Insider, one day of major league service brings some level of lifetime health care benefits.  Also, once a player has earned one day of major league service time, he cannot be paid less than about $83,000 currently for minor league service.

For 4-A players with long careers at the AAA level, this could mean fairly substantial minor league pensions, even if they never earn enough major league service time for a major league pension.  For most such players, however, by the time they reach their early 30’s MLB teams cut them loose because it can find younger players with no major league service time for less than half the price.

Here’s a more recent publication from MLB stating what benefits are and how they are calculated as of 2015.

The Current Pitcher Most Likely to Win 300 Games

October 25, 2016

In June of 2009, I wrote a blog piece entitled Of Course, Someone Else Will Win 300 Games.  After the 2012 season, I wrote a post which looked at the issue more deeply, and I concluded that it was more likely not that a pitcher pitching in 2012 would win 300 games.

In two updates to the 2012 piece, I reversed course and concluded that it was less likely than not that a current pitcher would win 300 games.  My most recent post from after the 2015 season is here.

While I am still of my revised opinion that it is less likely than not that a current pitcher will win 300 games, I think the odds are better today than they were a year or two ago, mainly because of the huge come-back season Justin Verlander had in 2016, about whom I will talk about more below.

In my original post, I listed the average number of career wins the last four 300 game winners (Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson) had at the end of their age 30 through age 40 seasons:

Average: 137 (30); 152 (31); 165 (32); 181 (33); 201 (34); 219 (35); 235 (36); 250 (37); 268 (38); 279 (39); 295 (40).

This is the age of the last four 300-game winners in the season in which each won their 300th game: Maddux 38, Clemens 40, Glavine 41 and Johnson 45.  In short,  and as you probably already knew, you have to be really good for a really long time to win 300 games.

Here are the current pitchers  I think are most likely to win 300 based on their current ages (during the 2016 season) and career win totals:

CC Sabathia (35) 223

Justin Verlander (33) 173

Zack Greinke (32) 155

Felix Hernandez (30) 154

John Lester (32) 146

Clayton Kershaw (28) 126

Max Scherzer (31) 125

David Price (30) 121

Rick Porcello (27) 107

Madison Bumgarner (26) 100

What you look for in projecting a pitcher to have a long career is that he throws really hard, he strikes out a lot of batters, and he doesn’t throw a whole lot of innings before his age 25 season.  That said, Greg Maddux didn’t strike out batters at an extremely high rate, even as a young pitcher, and he threw a lot of major league innings before his age 25 season.  Still, these factors remain relatively good corollaries for predicting longevity in a major league pitcher.

For these reasons, I like Justin Verlander’s chances of winning 300 the best.  His 2016 season, in which he struck out 10 batters per nine innings pitched and led his league in Ks, suggests he’s all the way back from whatever was holding him down in 2014 and 2015 and can be expected to pitch many years into the future, provided he isn’t worked as hard as he was from 2009-2012.

Add to this the fact that Verlander is pretty close to the average of the last four 300-game winners (the “Last Four”) through his age 33 season, and I, at least, have to conclude he’s still got a reasonably good shot at winning 300.

For pretty much the same reasons, I like Max Scherzer’s odds going forward as well.  In his age 31 season, he recorded a career-high 11.2 K/IP rate, he didn’t pitch a whole lot of innings at a young age and he’s really racked up the wins the last four seasons.  There’s no reason to think at this moment that he cannot continue to throw the 215-230 innings he’s consistently pitched the last four seasons for many more seasons to come.

CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw are all ahead of the Last Four.  However, their ability to last long enough to win 300 is very much in question for each of them.  Sabathia had a come-back season in 2016, but he’s won only 18 games the last three years, and I don’t see him at his age, his size and his recent injury history winning another 77 major league games.

Felix Hernandez is well ahead of the Last Four at the same age, but he looks to be on the verge of the arm injury many have been predicting for the last several years.  In 2016, Hernandez strikeout rate was the lowest of his career, his walks rate was the highest, and he threw fewer innings than in any season since he was an 18 year old minor leaguer.

Clayton Kershaw is undeniably great, but he missed 12 starts this season to a herniated disk in his back.  Herniated disks aren’t something that typically heal fully and never return for someone who is as active as a professional athlete, unless they are very, very lucky.

There have always been a lot of questions about whether Zack Greinke can consistently pitch 210-220 innings is a season, and 2016 did nothing to dispel that concern.  David Price has likely been overworked his last three seasons.  Jon Lester has settled into a very nice groove of pitching between 200 and 220 innings a year, and quite likely for that reason has had only one less than successful season since 2008.

Rick Porcello and Madison Bumgarner are really too young and too far from 300 wins to merit much consideration at this point.  Young pitchers who rack up the wins can fade as fast as Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain.

Even so, there was no way a year ago that I could have imagined Rick Porcello would make a list of the ten pitchers I thought had the best chance to win 300 games.  He threw a lot of professional innings before his age 25 season (although never 200 in a season), and he didn’t strike anyone out.  Starters who can pitch but don’t strike anyone out tend to go the way of Mark Fidrych and Dave Rozema.

However, something strange happened.  Porcello has started striking people out, with his 2015 and 2016 rates the highest of his career, while also improving his command.  It’s rare for a pitcher to improve his strikeout rate significantly this late in his major league career without adding or perfecting another pitch or dramatically improving his command, but the information I was able to find on line suggests that Porcello credits making better in-game and between-game adjustments and that he’s getting better coaching in terms of correcting minor mechanical flaws sooner based on video tape analysis.  On the other hand, Porcello came up so young that he may just still be learning as a pitcher and has become better at pitching to each American League hitter’s weakness.

One thing that would help the current generation of pitchers greatly in the quest for 300 career wins is another round of major league expansion.   There’s nothing like a watering down of the talent pool to elevate the best players’ performances.  The Last Four’s generation benefited from expansion in 1993 and 1998, but it doesn’t look like there will be another round of expansion any time soon.

Excited about a Cubs-Indians World Series

October 24, 2016

Well, I am certainly excited about the prospect of a Cubs-Indians World Series.  I will be routing for the Cubs, even though they beat my Giants, because I have family in Chicago who are Cubs fans.  However, I won’t be particularly disappointed if the Tribe wins, since in either event a team that hasn’t won a World Series in more than 65 years will be the winner.

The Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians are among the oldest teams in baseball never to have played each other in the World Series, and there is something appealing to me about a all-Midwest World Series since they don’t happen very often.  One party that is probably not very happy about this match-up, though, is Fox Sports, since they typically prefer having at least one of the teams from one of the coasts due to better ratings.

We will see what the ratings turn out to be.  Chicago is a big market, and there is a lot of drama in this match-up giving that one of two long-time losers has to win at last.  The Cubs are reportedly heavy favorites, but as I’ve said and written many times, anything can happen in a short series.  It very often comes down to which team gets lucky enough to have more of its players get hot at the right time.

My Favorite Baseball Trivia Question

October 16, 2016

Years ago, before the internet, there was something called sports trivia, where the cognoscenti of each particular sport showed off the depth of their obscure knowledge by asking questions that where nearly impossible to answer because of the passage of time.  Today, Javier Baez stole home plate for the first time by a Cubs player in the World Series since Jimmy Slagle did it in the 4th game of the 1907 World Series.

Anyway, that reminds me of my all-time favorite baseball trivia question back in the day when you could utterly stump someone with a really good one:  Whose passed ball on a strikeout pitch with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning allowed the Cubs to tie the score at 3-3 in the first game of the 1907 World Series?  The game ended in a draw on account of darkness.  The Cubs went on to sweep the series in the next four games.

The Answer:  Charles “Boss” Schmidt.  (There isn’t much point in holding back a response to build up the attention, since you could go to baseball reference or wikipedia and find the answer in less time than would take to read a few hundred more words.)

Schmidt was one of the great goats of the early years of the World Series, but he his almost entirely forgotten today.  Schmidt played in all three Detroit Tigers’ World Series appearances from 1907-1909, but unfortunately the Tigers lost all three.  He had a long career in baseball, though, playing until his age 43 season.

For what it’s worth, Schmidt’s misplay was treated as an error in 1907, but would be considered a passed ball today.

Joe Biagini Was Great for the Toronto Blue Jays, or Mark Melancon on My Mind

October 16, 2016

Joe Biagini pitched two shutout innings in a losing cause to the Tribe today, and it finally made me take full notice of just what a great rookie season he’s had for the Blue Jays after they claimed him in the Rule 5 draft from the San Francisco Giants.

I had written up Biagini before about his great start at AA Richmond in late May of last year.  I remember noting in my own mind, at least, that the Jays had claimed him in the Rule 5 draft, but apparently didn’t think it was worth writing about.  I also seem to recall noting that he had made the team out of Spring Training and that he was off to a good start.

Then I forgot about him.  As I had written in May 2015, Biagini’s final numbers in AA that year essentially matched his numbers at the time I wrote about him.  Biagini finished the year with a 2.42 ERA in 130.1 innings pitched.  However, he struck out only 84 batters, a sharp drop down from previous years to a 5.8 strikeout rate.

Figuring out that Biagini might be much better in relief was either a based on scouting or an educated guess.  He struck out 62 in 67.2 IP major league innings, an 8.4 rate, which is fine for a top set-up reliever.

One thing I hadn’t taken into account from his numbers is his very low home run rate, which at 0.5 is terrific.  His ability to keep from giving up the long-ball really helped him this year.

I certainly wish the best for Biagini going forward, particularly since he didn’t necessarily have a role in the Giants’ pen this year, which already had lots of relievers as good Biagini.  What killed them was not having someone who could consistently pitch the 9th inning.

So, the Giants are reported to be interested in Mark Melancon as the least expensive of the big three free agent relievers available this Winter.  Well, the Giants can certainly afford him.  I could see him getting five years and $50+ million, given how bad management probably wants a top closer.

They Died as They Lived

October 12, 2016

I would feel a lot worse about the San Francisco Giants blowing tonight’s game, if I hadn’t seen this coming since at least some time in early or mid-August.  In fact, I thought I would be writing this post last night, as the bullpen nearly blew that game as well.

It seems clear the Giants will be looking for a closer this off-season, and my guess is that they over-pay big time to get someone.  Most general managers are trying to fix the problem that destroyed last season, rather than having both eyes firmly fixed on the future, and I don’t think Brian Sabean is any different.

I feel worse for Matt Moore than anyone else on the team.  He did everything he possibly could to help the team win tonight, and it’s a bitter pill to have the bullpen give up four runs in the ninth inning.  That said, I can’t see a more fitting end to the 2016 Giants’ season — they died as they lived.

Attendance Up in Japan’s NPB in 2016

October 11, 2016

Overall attendance in Japan’s NPB was up a substantial 3.1% in 2016, and even better, the attendance growth was driven almost entirely by the smaller revenue clubs.  Both leagues set new single-season attendance records, as did six of the twelve teams.

While neither of the most poorly attended teams in each league, the Chiba Lotte Marines and the Yakult Swallows, set new attendance records, each had the largest percentage increase of any team in their respective leagues.  The only teams to have attendance declines compared to 2015 were the Yomiuri Giants and the SoftBank Hawks, two of NPB’s three rich teams, and even then the declines were modest.

Here are the 2016 attendance figures in millions:

Central League

Yomiuri Giants                3.004

Hanshin Tigers                2.911

Hiroshima Carp               2.157  New Franchise Record

Chunichi Dragons           2.058

Yokohama BayStars        1.939  New Franchise Record

Yakult Swallows               1.779

Pacific League

SoftBank Hawks              2.493

Nippon Ham Fighters    2.079  New Franchise Record

Orix Buffaloes                  1.794   New Franchise Record

Rakuten Golden Eagles  1.621   New Franchise Record

Seibu Lions                       1.618   New Franchise Record

Chiba Lotte Marines       1.527

It is quite possible that NPB will have seven teams drawing more than 2 million fans next season, creating a new “middle class” of teams that, except for the Chunichi Dragons, did not exist even 10 or 15 years ago.

The biggest driver of the attendance increase, at least in the long term, is the movement of teams out of the Greater Toyko and Osaka metropolitan areas into other smaller, but still large, metropolitan areas, such as Fukuoka (1988), Sapporo (2002) and Sendai (2005).  That process is more or less complete in terms of franchise moves, because Japan doesn’t have any other uninhabited metro areas large enough to support a major league NPB team.  However, the process of teams building up local fan bases supporting the local teams is still ongoing, and the thinning out of teams in Greater Tokyo and Greater Osaka, which are totally dominated by the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers respectively, has allowed the five remaining second banana teams in these massive metro areas to develop larger fan bases of their own.

Also, the Golden Eagles are currently playing in a stadium in Sendai that seats only about 23,500 fans, by far the smallest in NPB.  Presumably, the team will eventually move into a larger stadium and draw many more fans than it can now.

If the attendance growth of the last couple of seasons continues for several more years, with the bottom dwellers enjoying the largest attendance increases, it will make NPB much more competitive than it has ever been.

More revenue and more competition mean a better product on the field and will hopefully mean loosening of the caps on roster spaces for foreign players.  The recent attendance gains by NPB have already started a trend of most NPB teams signing far more foreign players than the four roster spaces per team would allow.   Teams are stashing foreign players on their minor league rosters so that the moment one or more of the four foreigners on the major league squad gets hurt or loses effectiveness, they can quickly fill that roster space with a new foreign player.

Aside from creating more high paying NPB jobs for players from the Americas, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan, a higher quality of play in NPB would also mean more former NPB players coming over to MLB as the gap in play between NPB and MLB narrows.  These players could potentially provide the additional talent needed for another round of MLB expansion.

However, MLB expansion generally has far more to do with the amount of expansion fees to be paid by the new owners relative to further splitting of short-term television revenues and giving up potential vacant metro areas to which existing MLB teams can threaten to move if local public entities refuse to pony up money for new stadia, than it does to the amount of major league talent available to fill the new expansion teams.

Top Pitching Prospects for MLB in South Korea’s KBO 2016/2017

October 11, 2016

The KBO is currently an extreme hitters’ league, which makes it difficult to evaluate pitchers with potential major league talent.  Nevertheless, these are the current KBO pitchers who impressed me in 2016 insofar as pitching in MLB in the future.

Michael Bowden (age 30 in 2017).  A former MLBer, Bowden had a fine first season in the KBO, going 18-7 with a 3.80 ERA (6th best — it’s a hitters’ league) and leading the KBO with 160 strikeouts in 180 innings pitched.

He’d probably be better off getting paid major league money pitching in the KBO until he has a season so impressive no one can ignore it.  However, given his relatively young age and strong 2016 performance, he’s the most likely foreign KBOer to return to the MLB system and have some success in 2017.

Kwang-hyun Kim (28) and Hyun-jong Yang (29).  The two best veteran Korean starters in KBO, both were posted last off-season but neither made it to MLB.  Kim’s team, the SK Wyverns, accepted a $2 million posting bid, but Kim was unable to reach a deal with the Padres.  Yang’s team, the Kia Tigers, rejected a posting bid reported to be $1.5 million.

Both Kim and Yang should be true free agents this off-season, and without the need for posting fees, either could end up in MLB.  Kim pitched well in 2016, but was limited to 137 innings pitched (3.88 ERA and 116 Ks), after missing most of July and the first half of August to an injury of some kind.  Yang pitched just over 200 innings with a 3.68 ERA (tied for fourth best) and 146 strikeouts (5th best — strikeout rates were low in the KBO for starters in 2016).

Both Kim and Yang are lefties, which might give them added value to MLB teams, since they would probably be relievers in MLB.

Woo-ram Jung (32).  After the success of Seung-hwan Oh in MLB, I expect MLB teams to be looking for the next South Korean reliever to sign.  Woo-ram Jung is probably the best one remaining, with 620 strikeouts in 649.1 career KBO innings pitched and a career 2.91 ERA.  However, he signed a four-year 8.4 billion won (a little over $7.5 million) last off-season with the Hanwha Eagles, presumably meaning he won’t be coming to MLB anytime soon and maybe never, given that he will be 35 the season after his current contract ends.

Chang-min Shim (24).  A young pitcher who already has nearly five years of KBO experience and a live arm (303 Ks in 268 career KBO innings pitched), it appears likely that Shim has not yet performed his two years of mandatory military service.  Thus, it may be some time before he gets posted or becomes a free agent.

Jae-haek Lee (26).  A pitcher I’ve been following since he had a big rookie year in 2013, some mid-season injuries limited Lee to 127.2 IP in 2016, but he struck out 134 batters, giving him the highest strikeout rate for any KBO pitcher who threw at least 100 innings.  His career 3.95 ERA isn’t impressive on its face.  However, all but his rookie season have been played since offense exploded in the KBO.

Lee has the disadvantage of being a small right-hander, listed at 5’11” and 176 lbs.  He may remind MLB teams too much of Suk-min Yoon, who famously flopped after being signed by the Orioles in 2014.  In fact, Lee is smaller than Yoon.

Jung-woo Lim (26) and Jae-yoon Kim (26).  Both have live arms.  Lim established himself as a closer this year, striking out 87 batters in 70.2 IP.  He has more than four years of KBO experience.

Kim has struck out 143 batters in 99 IP over the last two seasons, but those are his only two in KBO’s major league, so he may be too old by the time his team is willing to post him.

Kang-min Koo (20) and Se-woong Park (21).  Two even younger pitchers with live arms.  Koo as a 19 year old rookie struck out 67 batters in 68.2 IP and recorded a 4.19 ERA, which is great for a 19 KBO rookie in 2016.

Park struck out 133 batters in 139 innings pitched in his second year in the KBO.  Unfortunately, he has had a 5.76 ERA each of the last two seasons, which means he’s still got a lot to learn to become an effective starter.

Both Koo and Park are such a long way from pitching in MLB that it’s mostly wishful thinking on my part even to mention them.

Top Hitting Prospects for MLB in South Korea’s KBO 2016/2017

October 10, 2016

With the 2016 KBO regular season in the books, here is my evaluation of the top hitter/position player prospects in the KBO with respect to possibly playing in MLB in the future.

Eric Thames (30 years old in 2017). For the third year in a row, he had one of the top three OPS composites in the KBO.  He finished second at 1.106.

Thames led the KBO in OPS for most of the year before slumping in September.  His regular season also ended eight games early due to a suspension for driving under the influence.  He reportedly tested at 0.056, which is legal in California but not in South Korea.

Thames is finishing the second of a two-year contract worth a reported $3 million, and with the suspension, I think it’s just one more reason for him to move on a better league for more money.

The question is whether Thames returns to MLB, where he has a career .727 OPS in 684 career MLB plate appearances, or goes to Japan’s NPB.  The Hanshin Tigers have been reported to be interested in Thames, whom I would expect to receive a tw0-year deal for a guaranteed $5 million plus performance incentives were he to sign with Hanshin.  He’d probably make at most $4 million on a two-year deal to remain with his current team, the NC Dinos, although that may be more than the NC Dinos are willing to pay in light of their revenue streams and the bad press from the DUI.

At $5 million over two years, I think Thames would be a good risk for an MLB team that needs another left-handed hitting outfielder.

Koo Ja-Wook (24).  He was the top hitting youngster in the KBO in 2016, and he has what you look for in young hitters: high batting average (.346 over his first two full KBO seasons) and alley power (95 extra base hits over the last two seasons).  He has some growing to do: he’s currently listed as 6’2″ but only 165 lbs; but that doesn’t seem like a tall order for a player his age.

He’s listed as a 1Bman, which means he’ll have to make MLB as a hitter.  Also, I have no idea whether Koo has performed his two years of mandatory military service in South Korea, which is a major factor in any KBOer’s career.  My guess is that he has, given his performance level since coming up as a 22 rookie last year.

Choi Jeong (30).  A few years ago, Jeong was a player who was thought more likely to be the KBO position player to break through to MLB than was Jung-ho Kang.   However, Jeong got off to a slow start in 2014, and his team, the SK Wyverns, inexplicably sent him down to KBO’s Futures (minor) League, although an injury might have been involved.  He then appears to have gotten hurt in 2015 and missed about 60 games that year also.

In 2016, Jeong batted only .288, but he tied for the league lead in home runs with Eric Thames at 40.  His third base defense is reportedly good.  However, Jeong signed a then record four-year 8.6 billion won (roughly $7.75 million)  contract with the SK Wyverns after the 2014 season, which probably means he will remain in the KBO for at least two more seasons.

Na Sung-bum (27).  Na Sung-bum’s .887 OPS was only 25th best in the KBO in 2016, but it was his lowest OPS since his rookie year in 2013.  If he bounces back in 2017 and 2018, he’ll definitely be a prospect.

Son Ah-seop (29).  Son Ah-Seop’s star has definitely faded over the last two seasons, but he’s still relatively young, he’s a very good base runner (he stole 42 bases in 46 attempts in 2016) and he gets on base (his .419 on-base percentage was the league’s ninth best in 2016).  I still think he could potentially be a Nori Aoki type player in MLB.

Choi Hyung-woo (33) and Park Suk-Min (32).  A couple of fine KBO hitters, both are probably too old now to have any real future in MLB.  Choi led the KBO with a 1.121 OPS this year and has probably been an MLB-caliber hitter since 2011.  Park isn’t quite as good a hitter as Choi, but he’s a year younger.

The Best Foreign Pitchers in the History of South Korea’s KBO

October 10, 2016

Thanks to a big year from Dustin Nippert and Andy VanHekken’s mid-season return to KBO after an abortive attempt to establish himself in Japan’s NPB, the foreign pitcher records for South Korea’s KBO ticked strongly upward.

Wins

Danny Rios   90-59

Dustin Nippert   80-35

Andy VanHekken   65-35

Dustin Nippert had a tremendous 2016 campaign, finishing 22-3, tying Danny Rios’ 2007 record for wins by a foreign pitcher in a KBO season.  Nippert’s 2.95 ERA was the league’s best by more than a third of a run.  It is widely expected that Nippert will become the third foreign player to win the KBO’s MVP award, joining Rios in 2007 and Eric Thames last year.

Nippert stated in September that he wants to finish his baseball career with the Doosan Bears, so he is expected to return to the KBO in 2017, probably for a one year deal at about $2 million, given that the Bears are the KBO’s wealthiest team.

Andy VanHekken, like Rios in 2008, tried jumping to Japan’s NPB this year immediately following a strong KBO season.  As with Rios in 2008, it did not work out well at all for VanHekken.  He pitched extremely well in five NPB minor league appearances but got roughed up to the tune of a 6.31 ERA in 10 NPB major league games, and was quickly released.

Unlike Rios in 2008, Van Hekken was able to re-sign with his old KBO team, the Nexen Heroes, in time to make 12 late season starts.  He went 7-3 and will also most certainly return to the KBO in 2017.

ERA (800 Career Innings Pitched)

Danny Rios    3.01

Dustin Nippert    3.38

Chris Oxspring    3.90

Henry Sosa   4.58

As far as I am aware, Rios, Nippert, Oxspring and Sosa are the only four foreign pitchers to reach my 800 career innings pitched cut-off.  If healthy, both Andy VanHekken and Eric Hacker should reach the 800 IP mark next year.  Both currently have career KBO ERAs just over 3.50.

Eric Hacker (44-27) and Henry Sosa (48-40) should both break the 50 career wins threshold if they play in KBO next year.  Hacker missed about eight starts to an injury in the middle of the 2016 season, but was great both before and after, finishing 13-3 with a 3.45 ERA, excellent for the hit-happy KBO of recent seasons.

Sosa went 10-9 with a 5.16 ERA but ate up 199 IP.  Sosa’s ERA was 15th out of 17 qualifiers, but given the amount of offense in the league, it would probably makes sense for the LG Twins to bring him back for the same $550,000 he made in 2016, which is definitely at the low end of what veteran foreigners make in the KBO.

Stikeouts

Danny Rios   807

Dustin Nippert   756

Andy VanHekken   721

Henry Sosa   629

Saves

Jose Cabrera   53

With a limited number of roster spots for foreign players (currently three total, only two of whom may be pitchers), KBO teams want starting pitchers, not relievers.  Of the 59 KBO pitchers to record at least one save in 2016, only one, Eric Surkamp, was a foreigner, and he recorded only a single save.

The best season by a foreign reliever was Scott Proctor‘s 2012, when he had a 1.79 ERA and saved 35 games.  However, he returned to the U.S. in 2013 to play at AAA.  The KBO has yet to have a foreign closer last more than a couple of seasons.