KBO Primer: What you need to know before Korea's Opening Day
MLB fans were deprived of Opening Day in March, but baseball obsessives will be treated to the return of live action when the KBO League begins Tuesday.
ESPN reached an agreement with the KBO to broadcast six games per week, starting with Tuesday's opener between the NC Dinos and Samsung Lions.
Where and when to watch?
Good news, night owls and early risers! Due to the time difference, the games will be broadcast stateside late at night or early in the morning. The first game will air Tuesday on ESPN at 1 a.m. ET. The full schedule for the first week of games is below:
|May 5||NC Dinos vs. Samsung Lions||1 a.m.|
|May 6||Doosan Bears vs. LG Twins||5:30 a.m.|
|May 7||NC Dinos vs. Samsung Lions||5:30 a.m.|
|May 8||KIA Tigers vs. Samsung Lions||5:30 a.m.|
|May 9||LG Twins vs. NC Dinos||4 a.m.|
|May 10||LG Twins vs. NC Dinos||1 a.m.|
The games will feature English-language commentary from ESPN personalities like Jon Sciambi, Jessica Mendoza, and others. The broadcast schedule will repeat the following week with different matchups and one game per day Tuesday through Sunday.
The KBO basics
The league was formed in 1982 and consisted of six teams. There are now 10 teams across eight cities. Unlike MLB, team names don't include their geographical locations (here's a map showing the location of all 10 teams). Each team plays 144 games in the regular season, facing each of the other nine clubs a total of 16 times.
There are two main differences from MLB gameplay: The KBO allows games to end in ties after 12 innings (15 innings in the postseason) and the DH is universal, so pitchers never get an opportunity to swing the bat.
You may see some familiar faces, as many former major leaguers play in Korea. However, teams are limited to a maximum of three foreign players on the roster.
Unique postseason format
The KBO differs greatly from MLB in its postseason structure. Five of the 10 teams qualify for the playoffs based on win-loss record. Thereafter, teams play in a stepladder-style format beginning with the KBO wild-card game between the fifth- and fourth-place teams.
The fourth-place team is staked to a 1-0 lead and only needs to win - or tie - one game to advance. The fifth-place team needs to win two games to move on.
The winner of the wild-card matchup faces the third-place team in a best-of-five series, with the victorious squad entering a five-game series against the second-best regular-season team.
There is a distinct advantage to performing well in the regular season, as the team with the top record automatically advances to the finals - a best-of-seven series against the winner of the previous series.
One of the great pleasures of being a baseball fan is following the statistics of the players and teams. The KBO website has an English option that includes links to the schedule, game results, standings, and players' numbers.
A well-oiled machine, the Bears are widely viewed as the best-run organization in the league. They are the defending KBO champions and have won the title in three of the past five seasons, finishing second the other two years.
They're not quite at the top of the hierarchy heading into this season after losing 2019 MVP Josh Lindblom over the winter. In 2020, they'll rely heavily on lineup staples Jose Miguel Fernandez, who slashed .344/.409/.483 last year, and outfielder Kim Jae-hwan, the 2018 league MVP.
The league's lovable losers, the Eagles are expected to finish near the KBO basement this season. And unfortunately, a team that's known for possessing one of the league's most fervent fan bases won't even have that benefit with games being played behind closed doors.
As the KBO's most well-known brand, the Tigers bear a resemblance to MLB's New York Yankees, having won a league-record 11 championships. However, the team has suffered a fall from grace since last winning the KBO in 2017.
After some down years, expectations are higher for 2020, as the Tigers will be coached by former Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams, just the third American manager in KBO history. The team also brought in a pair of former MLB players in Preston Tucker and Aaron Brooks.
Finally, fans need to be aware of when Yang Hyeon-jong is starting. The lefty posted a 2.29 ERA over 184 innings last season with an absurd 4.94 K/BB ratio.
Potentially the team to beat this year, the Heroes play an exciting brand of baseball, with their aggressive, rebellious approach often defying the norms of Korean baseball.
The Heroes can flat-out hit and should score a ton of runs. Star shortstop Kim Ha-seong is joined in the lineup by last season's home run leader, ByongHo Park - who played two years in MLB with the Minnesota Twins - and outfielder Lee Jung-hoo, who's considered one of the KBO's best young stars. Lee could be set for a breakout campaign as he looks to follow in the footsteps of his father, a former KBO MVP.
As the league's youngest team, the Wiz should be fun to watch. There are a number of promising arms on the roster, but their inexperience leaves the team open to a wide range of outcomes this season.
Any success will largely hinge on the performance of first baseman Kang Baek-ho. The 20-year-old has superstar potential and is viewed by many as the next face of the KBO.
The Twins will assuredly be competing with the likes of the Bears and Heroes for KBO glory this season. Think of the Twins as being similar to the Los Angeles Dodgers of late - consistently one of the league's best teams on and off the field but always choking in key moments and failing to win the big one.
The Twins share a home stadium with the Bears in Seoul, and because of Doosan's success in recent years, the relationship between the two teams is almost like that of the Yankees and New York Mets.
This year, the Twins have a really impressive roster from top to bottom, but the centerpiece is the one-two punch at the top of the rotation formed by ex-MLB pitchers Casey Kelly and Tyler Wilson.
You don't always get what you pay for. The Giants were the worst team in the league last season despite owning the KBO's highest payroll. The team is now hoping that a revamped rotation will lead to greater success.
MLB imports Dan Straily and Adrian Sampson were signed over the offseason and are expected to provide a massive boost to the pitching staff (though the latter remains stuck in Seattle because of travel restrictions), while 24-year-old starter Park Sae-woong is viewed as a potential breakout star.
One of the league's newest teams, the Dinos have only been around for seven seasons, but they've impressively made the playoffs in five of them. After leading the league in home runs last year, they could be a fun "over" team in 2020.
Two major reasons for the lineup's success are outfielder Na Sung-bum and catcher Yang Eui-ji. Na is a career .316/.383/.534 hitter who hired agent Scott Boras last year in an attempt to pursue an MLB contract before a torn ACL pushed back those plans. Yang left the Bears to sign with the Dinos in December 2018 and then slashed a remarkable .354/.438/.574 with 20 home runs last season, which included more walks than strikeouts.
The Lions won four successive titles from 2011-14, but they aren't the same team anymore. Poor international scouting has been a major hindrance to the organization, which could be in for a long year after top hitter Darin Ruf returned to North America this offseason. The Lions missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons.
One name to watch on the Lions is shortstop Lee Hak-ju, a former top prospect of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Seeing how this team responds to last year's unprecedented disaster is one of the major storylines heading into 2020. The Wyverns held a seven-game lead in first place with a month left in the 2019 campaign - the regular-season winner gets an automatic bye to the Korean Series, KBO's World Series equivalent - but blew it in spectacular fashion, with the Bears passing them on the season's final day.
Things got even worse over the offseason as the Wyverns lost two of the league's best pitchers - Kwang Hyun Kim to the St. Louis Cardinals and Angel Sanchez to Japan. That would be like the Houston Astros losing Justin Verlander in addition to Gerrit Cole.
This season, the Wyverns will rely on third baseman Choi Jeong, a veteran and two-time home run champion who's consistently among the league's top performers, and Canadian first baseman Jamie Romak, another power bat who finished second in home runs in each of the last two seasons.
Finally, bat flips
To give fans a taste of the showmanship on display, ESPN's Jeff Passan put together a Twitter thread with examples of some glorious bat flips from the KBO. Behold: