A KBO primer: Here's what you need to know to enjoy the return of baseball in South Korea

·11 min read

Baseball may not be back in the United States yet, but it’s back in South Korea starting on May 5 following a delay to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

ESPN has agreed to a deal to broadcast six KBO games per week. The first game, between the NC Dinos and Samsung Lions, is set to be shown on Tuesday.

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Real, live sports on TV! To prepare, here’s a primer on the Korea Baseball Organization.

History and format

The KBO began playing in 1982, and is Korea’s oldest team-based sports league. It’s also the most popular, starting with six teams and expanding to 10 by 2015.

Each season consists of 144 games, and every team plays each other 16 times over the course of the year. This is different than MLB, primarily because there are fewer teams. Every MLB team doesn’t face every other team during the season, and the number of games played varies depending on scheduling, league, and division.

The same goes for the playoffs, too — fewer teams means a different structure, but the KBO is even more different, choosing to put a greater emphasis on regular season results. The top five teams make the playoffs, and the top three teams get byes of varying lengths. The team with the best record in the KBO gets an automatic bye until the best-of-seven Korean Series, which is the KBO’s yearly championship series.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 21: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Chung Soo-bin of Doosan Bears bats during the preseason game between LG Twins and Doosan Bears at Jamsil Baseball Stadium on April 21, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) open a preseason games Tuesday, with its 10 clubs scheduled to play four games each through April 27. The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) announced Tuesday that the 2020 regular season, postponed from its March 28 start date due to the coronavirus outbreak, will begin May 5.  (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Soo-bin Chung of the defending champ Doosan Bears bats during preseason KBO action in Seoul. The KBO will begin regular season play on May 5 following a delay to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

To kick off the four-phase playoffs, the fourth- and fifth-place teams face off in a best-of-three series, but there’s an interesting wrinkle: the fourth-place team gets an automatic 1-0 series lead, meaning it could be over in just one game. The winner of that series plays the third-place team in the best-of-five quarterfinals, and that winner plays the second-place team in the semifinals. The well-rested first-place team takes on the only other team left standing in the Korean Series.

Style of play

The KBO is known as a high-offense league. At the end of the 2018 regular season, the league-wide batting average was .286. Over in MLB during the same season, the league-wide batting average was .248 — a difference of nearly 40 points! Such an active offensive environment affects pitching as well. An average KBO ERA in 2018 was 5.17, while in MLB it was 4.15.

The reason we’re looking at stats from 2018 is because the KBO introduced a new de-juiced ball in 2019 that was meant to dampen some (but not all) of the sky-high offense that the league is known for. It did succeed in that, and because the KBO intentionally announced that it was changing the ball, everyone knew what was going on from the start. (MLB should take a few notes.) The overall KBO batting average for 2019 was .267, a 20-point drop from 2018. Pitchers fared even better, with the average ERA falling an entire run to 4.17.

The slight (intentional) drop in offense hasn’t changed the spirit of the KBO. Being a league with a history of lots of hits and home runs means a culture of bat flips has been cultivated and nurtured. The KBO is the home to some of the world’s most enormous and impressive bat flips.

Beyond the run-scoring environment, the main differences between the KBO and MLB are the designated hitter and the existence of ties. In the KBO, the designated hitter is universal across all 10 teams, meaning there’s no switching depending on the park they’re playing in. Games are also declared a tie after 12 innings of play.

Every team has a few foreign-born players, but unlike MLB, there are restrictions on how many can be on a team’s roster. Each club is limited to just three.

Now to meet the teams. Here’s a rundown of the KBO’s 10 clubs, based on the order they finished in 2019. (You’ll note that KBO teams are named not for their geographic areas, but for the corporation that owns them.)

Doosan Bears

Hometown: Seoul

Owned by: Doosan, a massive South Korean conglomerate that deals in construction equipment, electrical power, and infrastructure, among many (many) other things.

Mascot: A steel robot bear.

Are they good? Yes they are. The Bears, based in Seoul, were the 2019 KBO champions, winning the Korean Series for the third time in five years. The Bears were also won the very first Korean Series back in 1982, the KBO’s founding year.

Former MLB players: Raul Alcantara, Jose Miguel Fernandez, Chris Flexen

SK Wyverns

Hometown: Incheon

Owned by: SK Group, an enormous South Korean conglomerate that’s involved in the chemical, petroleum, and energy industries, as well as mobile wireless, high-speed internet, construction, shipping, and more.

Mascot: The Wyverns use the goddess Athena and an owl, but they also use their namesake, a wyvern, which is a mythical two-legged dragon that has a snake tail. To celebrate the opening of the 2019 season after winning the 2018 Korean Series, the team used augmented reality to bring a wyvern right into the stadium. It looks fun yet also terrifying.

Are they good? Mostly. The Wyverns, founded in 2000, won three Korean Series titles in four seasons between 2007 and 2010, and have made the playoffs six times since then. They also have third baseman Jeong Choi, one of the best infielders of his generation. He’s 33 and about to start his 16th KBO season.

Former MLB players: Nick Kingham, Ricardo Pinto, Jamie Romak

Kiwoom Heroes

Owned by: Not a conglomerate! The Heroes are the only KBO team not owned by a giant conglomerate or company, and is instead owned by a group of individuals. They sell the naming rights for the team, which belonged to Nexen Tire from 2010 to 2018, and now belong to Kiwoom Securities.

Hometown: Seoul

Mascot: A guardian robot named DomDomI, and two silver hero creatures named Dongeuli and Tuckdori or Teokdori, which apparently translates to “Mr. Jaw.” A video of this mascot dancing at a game might give you a clue as to why.

Are they good? They are now. The Heroes, “reborn” in 2008 from the ashes of the defunct Hyundai Unicorns, are continuing to reap the benefits of a long rebuild that wasn’t exactly voluntary. It began in 2008 when the team was forced to trade star players for cash to pay the remainder of its new team founding fee to the KBO. The rebuild ended after the 2012 season and in the seven years since, they’ve made the playoffs six times — but they’ve never managed to win the Korean Series.

Former MLB players: Jake Brigham, Eric Jokisch, Taylor Motter, ByungHo Park

LG Twins

Hometown: Seoul

Owned by: Multinational South Korean conglomerate LG Corporation. LG operates in chemicals and telecom, but is known in the US for electronics.

Mascot: Baseball robot twins Lucky and Star

Are they good? Occasionally. They’re one of the KBO’s original six teams (they played as the MBC Blue Dragons from 1982-1989), but they’ve won the Korean Series just twice (1990 and 1994). Since their last championship they’ve been all over the place, including a rough, decade-long stretch of zero playoff appearances and zero winning seasons. They’ve made the playoffs twice in the past five years, including a trip to the quarterfinals in 2019.

Former MLB players: Casey Kelly, Hyun-Soo Kim, Tyler Wilson

NC Dinos

Hometown: Changwon

Owned by: NCSoft, a South Korean video game developer responsible for games like “Blade & Soul,” “Guild Wars,” “Lineage,” and “Master X Master.”

Mascot: Dendi the tyrannosaurus and Seri the brontosaurus. Dendi can seriously dance, and Seri looks awesomely weird with his crazy giant neck and enormous arms.

Are they good? Yes, mostly. The Dinos, Eric Thames’ former KBO team, have only existed since 2013 and haven’t won any championships yet. They’ve gotten close though, making it to the playoffs in just their second year of existence and all the way to the Korean Series in 2016. They’ve actually made the playoffs in all but two of their seven seasons, and should have two of their superstars, outfielder Sung-bum Na and catcher Eui-ji Yang, ready to start the season.

Former MLB players: Aaron Altherr, Drew Rucinski, Mike Wright

KT Wiz

Hometown: Suwon

Owned by: KT Corporation, the largest telephone company in South Korea. KT also deals in wireless telecom and high-speed internet.

Mascot: Adorable, big-mouthed monsters Vic and Ddory, whose names are meant to be pronounced together as “victory.” When the team was founded in 2013, this is the video the team released to introduce the world to Vic and Ddory.

Are they good? Historically (which only goes back to the team’s first season in 2015), the Wiz have been pretty bad. They finished dead least in 2015, 2016, and 2017, and improved one spot to 9th place in 2018. Their 6th place, 71-71-2 finish in 2019 is the best in the team’s entire (short) history. They finished just two games short of making the playoffs for the first time, and could make that leap into uncharted territory in 2020.

Former MLB players: William Cuevas, Odrisamer Despaigne, Jae-Gyun Hwang

Kia Tigers

Hometown: Gwangju

Owned by: The Kia Motors Corporation, the enormous automotive manufacturer.

Mascot: A male tiger and a lady tiger. The animated versions have the male tiger as a baseball player and the lady tiger as a cheerleader with a small crown on her head, but in costume they’re just very, very energetic dancers.

Are they good? Not really. Though they are the most successful team in KBO history with 11 Korean Series titles, only two of them have come since 2000. While the most recent was in 2017, their last few seasons haven’t inspired a ton of confidence. They made the playoffs in 2018 but got bounced in the first round, and they finished in seventh place in 2019. Looking at the last 20 years, there’s more mediocrity than championships.

Former MLB players: Aaron Brooks, Drew Gagnon, Preston Tucker, Matt Williams (manager)

Samsung Lions

Hometown: Daegu

Owned by: Cheil Worldwide, a subsidiary of Samsung. Cheil is a marketing company and advertising agency with clients like Lego, GE, Nestle, and Microsoft.

Mascot: A male lion named Bleo, a female lion named Pinkleo, a girl lion named Lenny, and a little boy lion named Laon. This ragtag group (or possibly family?) of baseball-obsessed lions are from another planet, There’s a six-minute compilation of their in-person antics on Youtube, and since we’re all hurting for sports-based entertainment, give it a watch.

Are they good? Not now, but they have a history of excellence. They’ve appeared in 17 Korean Series since 1982, more than any other team, and their eight championships are more than every team but one. They also won four straight Korean Series from 2011-2014, but it’s been pretty bleak since then. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2015.

Former MLB players: David Buchanan, Ben Lively, Seunghwan Oh, Tyler Saladino

Hanwha Eagles

Hometown: Daejeon

Owned by: Hanwha Group, which originally started in explosives and expanded into chemicals, construction, and financial services.

Mascot: Two eagles that are red-orange to symbolize fire, which pays tribute to Hanwha’s beginnings in explosives. They look a little bit like chickens, don’t they?

Are they good? No. The Eagles have existed since 1986 and won the Korean Series in 1999, but they’ve made the playoffs just once since 2008. Even though that happened in 2018, they immediately went back to losing after a surprising third-place finish. They finished ninth in 2019.

Former MLB players: Chad Bell, Jared Hoying, Warwick Saupold

Lotte Giants

Hometown: Busan

Owned by: Lotte Corporation, which owns businesses in the fast food industry, candy manufacturing, hotels, construction, industrial chemicals, and more.

Mascot: A giant was their mascot from 1982 until 2006, but then they changed to two seagulls named Pini and Noori.

Are they good? No, they are not. They have a run of playoff appearances in the recent past, but no championships beyond their two in 1984 and 1992. From 1997 to 2007 they finished in eighth place six times and seventh place two times. Their forecast for 2020 isn’t so bleak, as they’re hoping for bounce-back years from several of their players.

Former MLB players: Dae-ho Lee, Dixon Machado, Adrian Sampson, Dan Straily

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