Korea Primed to Continue Classic Title Chase

By Gabriel Fidler (@gabrielfidler)
Second in a series of 2013 World Baseball Classic previews

MARYVILLE, Tenn. –After their second place finish in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Korea will enter the 2013 tournament as one of the favourites. The journey could prove much more challenging than last time, however, as they will travel to Taiwan to face an improved Chinese Taipei. The Blue Bogy, as they are known to the Korean media, will also have to face the defending World Champions, the Netherlands, and tenth-ranked Australia.

Previous World Baseball Classics
In the last Classic, Korea opened with a 9-0 victory over Chinese Taipei in Tokyo.  After a 14-2 drubbing by Japan in the Tokyo Dome, Korea regrouped and took it out on China in a 14-0 shellacking. This earned them the right to face Japan once more, and eked out a 1-0 win to take the higher seeding into the second round.

They travelled to San Diego for a bracket that once more included Japan, but also had Cuba and Mexico. Korea topped the Mexican side, 8-2, before defeating Japan once more. The 4-1 victory advanced them to the second round title bout, where Japan took the higher seeding after eliminating Cuba.

Korea advanced to the finals, where they were paired against Venezuela, fresh off a victory over the United States. Korea dismantled them in a 10-2 win, before once more facing Japan, this time at Dodger Stadium for the Classic title.

The game lived up to its billing, as Japan posted the first run in the third, holding Korea scoreless until a Shin-Soo Choo home run in the fifth drew the game even. The Samurai plated single runs in the seventh and eighth and held a 3-1 lead with six outs to go.

Korea had other plans, scoring its second run off starter Hisashi Iwakuma, now a Seattle Mariner. After holding Japan scoreless in the ninth, Korea tied it up against Yu Darvish, but Japan wrecked their title dreams in the top of the tenth as Ichiro Suzuki hit a two-run single to give Japan their second WBC championship in-a-row.

The script was remarkably similar in the first Classic in 2006, as South Korea swept through the opening round with three straight wins, including a 3-2 victory over Japan in group title contest. In the second round, they repeated the feat, this time with a 2-1 decision over Team Nippon, but lost to Japan 6-0 in the semifinals.

All told, the blue-and-white has a 12-4 record in the World Baseball Classic, outscoring its opponents by 21 runs in those 16 games. Only Japan has as many wins, though no one has a better winning percentage. In fact, the two neighbours are the only countries with a double-digit victory total.

Korea has been remarkably consistent in the two tournaments, hitting exactly .243 with 20 extra base hits as a team in each, which places them in the middle of the pack among team batting averages. Where they have stood out, however, has been on the pitching mound.

In 2006, the nation led all participants with a 2.00 ERA, placing second with a 1.00 WHIP. In 63 innings, they allowed only 45 hits and 18 walks while striking out 50. The most recent Classic saw them post an ERA of exactly three, surrendering 82 hits and 22 walks in 78 frames. Korean pitchers whiffed 60.

Korea’s Recent International Play
Korea’s success in the World Baseball Classic is no surprise given their results in other international tournaments. The blue-and-white competed in almost every Baseball World Cup, finishing with a 94-67 all-time record after the final Cup in 2011. In 14 appearances, they collected one championship (a tall feat with Cuba’s international dominance), five second places finishes (most recently in 2005), and twice earned third place.

The Blue Bogy also appeared in three of the five Olympic Games in which baseball was contested, taking gold in the final Olympics (2008) and bronze in 2000.

Korea has also made their presence felt in the highly competitive Asian baseball scene. In the Asian Games, which is modelled after the Olympics and occurs every four years, the country has taken a medal in all five appearances.  Their three gold medals include first place at the most recent Asiad in 2010.

The other major Asian tournament for the sport is the Asian Baseball Championship (ABC), which takes place roughly on a biannual basis. The Championship has been played 26 times, and Korea has only twice failed to claim a medal. The first was in 1969, while the most recent was 2005, much to the shock of the international baseball community. Japan has the most titles at 17, but Korea has the most silvers (10) and second most medals overall.

Korea has plenty of history in tournaments hosted by Chinese Taipei. In all competitions, the Blue Bogy is 35-33-1, dating back to the 1962 ABC in Taipei. Korea has had less success in global tournaments that have taken place in Taiwan, though.

In the World Cup and Intercontinental Cup, considered by the International Baseball Federation to be a ‘minor’ world championship, Korea is only 17-21. Taiwan, on the other hand, has won 66 per cent of international tournament games on its soil.

As might be expected, Korea and Chinese Taipei have a long history of competition. They first squared off in the first Asian Championship in 1954 and have played almost every year since. In the past decade, Korea holds an 8-5 advantage. Taiwan has had Korea’s number at the ABCs, winning four-of-five, but Korea has exacted revenge in the WBC and Olympic competitions.

“Taiwan plays powerful baseball,” expressed Il-Sung Ha, a renowned Korea baseball analyst. “They come out after a thorough analysis of Team Korea. They shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

In the same period, Korea has also had a regular showdown with the Netherlands, and has not beaten the Dutch since the 2008 Olympics, on the way to their last major international title. Between 2009-11, the Netherlands beat the blue-and-white every year in a world tournament, and Korea is only 3-6 versus them in the last 10 years. Their most recent matchup in the 2011 World Cup was a 5-1 decision in favour of the Dutch, who went on to become world champions.

The Blue Bogy has had similar results against Australia, winning only three-of-eight since 1999. They last faced each other in the 2011 Cup, with Korea taking a round robin contest 8-0 and the Aussies winning their next game 3-2, which gave Australia fifth place and dropped Korea a spot below them. Korea has never faced Australia or the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.

“The Netherlands is said to be strong, but Taiwan has always tried to catch up with Korea,” star pitcher Jae Weong Seo told Korea JoongAng Daily. “Only when we beat Taiwan will we be able to relax in the second round.”

The 2013 Squad
Manager Joong-Il Ryu will rely almost solely on players developed in their professional league, the Korea Baseball Organisation (KBO). The country has only had pro ball since the early 1980s, and it has only been in the last two decades that American teams have begun to sign Korean baseball players.

The first was Chan Ho Park, who concluded a 17-year major league career in 2010. His 124 victories are the most by a pitcher from Asia, one more than Japan’s Hideo Nomo. Park threw 10 shutout frames in the 2006 Classic, earning three saves. He has since retired from international competition.

Byung-Hyun Kim and Shin-Soo Choo are the two other noteworthy Korean MLB players. Kim won two World Series rings, one each with the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Boston Red Sox. He struck out seven in 4 2/3 innings in the 2006 WBC but is no longer playing.

Choo was traded this offseason to the Cincinnati Reds after seven standout years with the Cleveland Indians. He is a career .289/.381/.465 hitter with 85 stolen bases in 699 games.

Unfortunately for Korea, Choo and recent Los Angeles Dodgers’ signee Hyun-Jin Ryu will not be on the 2013 roster. Choo asked to be left off the squad as he will be transitioning to a new position (centerfield). He hit two home runs in the 2009 Classic. Ryu appeared in five games in the 2009 tourney, winning a game and finishing with a 2.57 ERA.

The blue-and-white will also be missing Bum Ho Lee, who hit .400 with three home runs and seven RBI in 2009, and is a .297 career hitter in the WBC. Lee will be missing for undisclosed reasons.

The Lineup
Despite them omission of Choo and Lee, the lineup has the potential to be a strength for Korea, unlike in previous tournaments. The pitching side has less depth than in previous years, but the starting nine has above-average hitters at every position and is particularly strong at the infield corners.

Like Japan, the Blue Bogy will be expected to be good contact hitters, but should flash more power, as it has in previous Classics. Korea returns several other top hitters from previous Classics, including Seung-Yeop Lee, Hyunsoo Kim, and Taekyun Kim.

“[If] Lee Seung-yeop, Kim Tae-kyun and Lee Dae-ho all… lead well at bat, we will be able to have a good result,” remarked Korea’s manager to the JoongAng Daily.

Seung-Yeop Lee missed the 2009 Classic, but put in arguably the best-ever performance in a WBC in 2006. He hit .333 with five four-baggers, eight runs, and 10 RBI in seven games, walking four times. In the 2008 Olympics, he hit a game-winning home run in the semifinals versus Japan and added another four-bagger in the gold medal win over Cuba.

Lee holds multiple Asian records, including being the youngest player to 300 career home runs (26) and most dingers in a season (56). The first-sacker has 504 career homers and a .288 average in Korea and Japan combined. He was the KBO Championship MVP in 2012, and has five MVP awards in the Korean circuit.

The 36-year old will also have added motivation in what will likely be his last Classic as his Korea team, the Samsung Lions, lost to a Taiwanese club in the Asia Series in November. The Series pits the winners of several Asian leagues against each other to determine the Asian club champion. Lee was quite unproductive for the Lions.

“Regardless of the circumstances or my position, I will help the team win. I think that’s what I am supposed to do,” Lee told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It still pains me that we didn’t make it to the final with our loss to Japan,” Lee said. “To not repeat the painful experience of 2006, I will work harder. This time, we will get them back by winning the event.”

Hyunsoo Kim was second on the team in 2009 with a .393 average, leading the squad in doubles (3) and on-base percentage (.514). A year before, he ripped a .370 average in the Olympics. In the KBO, the outfielder has a .319 career mark, slugging .481. He has won two Golden Gloves in the outfield.

Taekyun Kim tied Lee for the team (and tournament) lead in 2009 with three four-baggers, hitting .345/.486/.690 in the process. He also led the team in walks (8), RBI (11), and runs (9), while striking out only three times in nine games. The first baseman also appeared in 2006, going 0-for-1, but reached base three times. Kim is a .309 career hitter with 226 home runs in Japan and Korea.

Dae-Ho Lee is a candidate to replace Bum-Ho Lee at third base. Lee played at the WBC in 2009, notching a .278/.440/.389 line, but had even better results in the 2008 Olympics, stroking a .360 average and slugging .760. He had 15 RBI between the two events. In his senior international career, he is a .353 career hitter with six home runs and 33 RBI in 116 at bats.

Lee has also had a storied professional career. In 2006, he won the Korean Baseball Organisation’s Triple Crown with a .336 average, 26 home runs, and 88 RBI. He lost the MVP award that year to Hyun-Jin Ryu, the latest Korean to make the big leagues.

In 2010, he set a world record by hitting homers in nine straight games, once more winning the Triple Crown. He moved to Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Japan’s major leagues, in 2012, leading the league in RBI and winning the Home Run Derby. He has a .306 average and 249 home runs in his pro career.

Korea’s weakest spots in the lineup are at shortstop and catcher. Jung-Ho Kang will be the likely starter at short. Min-Ho Kang and Kab-Yong Jin will likely split time at the backstop. Both have seen little success for the national team but have had solid domestic careers.

Jung-Ho Kang will look to fill what has been a black hole for Korea in the last two Classics. Korea shortstops combined to hit .149 and struck out 28 per cent of the time in 2006 and 2009. Kang is a .289 hitter with good power and carried a scorching bat at the 2010 Asian Games. The right-handed hitter ripped three homers and five singles in 13 at bats, driving in eight and scoring five times.

Min-Ho Kang is a career .211 hitter in international play, but has 114 home runs and a .275 average in the KBO. He has won two Golden Glove Awards in the KBO. Jin has a .220 average for Korea, but a .273 mark with 139 homers in the Korean league.

Others that will see time in the infield are Keun-Woo Jeong and Jung Choi. Jeong played second base in the last Classic, hitting .292 with one home run. He scored seven runs, but also tied for the team lead in strikeouts (6). He is a career .338 hitter with four home runs and 21 RBI in seven tournaments for Korea.

Choi is the heir apparent to Dae-Ho Lee and Bum-Ho Lee at third base. Only 25, he already has 126 home runs and a .287/.372/.484 line in the KBO. Choi has drawn raves for his defence, winning a Golden Glove the past two seasons. He is 4-for-17 with two doubles for the Blue Bogy.

The outfield will consist of the hot-hitting Hyunsoo Kim in left field, with Yongkyu Lee in center and Jin Young Lee in right. Yongkyu Lee was 4-for-18 with two stolen bases in 2009 and is a .324 career hitter for Korea. He has a .295 average with 224 stolen bases in 940 KBO games.

Jin Young Lee is a veteran of the blue-and-white, having appeared in seven tournaments since 2002. He has accumulated a .288 average and 23 RBI for Korea, and was an All-Star in the 2002 Intercontinental Cup. In Korea’s domestic league, he has a .304 career batting average and has shown solid power.

With six members of the 2009 starting lineup still on the roster, it is possible to project how manager Ryu will fill out this year’s batting order. The top four in the order should remain unchanged from 2009, while Seung-Yeop Lee will once more feature in the heart of the order.

Yongkyu Lee –CF
Keunwoo Jeong – 2B
Hyunsoo Kim – LF
Taekyun Kim – 1B
Seung-Yeop Lee – DH
Dae-Ho Lee – 3B
Jin Young Lee – RF
Jung-Ho Kang – SS
Minho Kang/Kabyong Jin – C

The Pitching Staff
Most of Korea’s best pitchers from previous Classics are not on this year’s team. The most noticeable is Jung Keun Bong, a long-time national team member. Bong won 47 minor league games and seven more in the big leagues, mostly in the Atlanta Braves’ system. In three starts and three relief appearances, he had a 0.44 ERA and beat Japan twice. The left-hander is dealing with injuries.

The Blue Bogy has four key returning pitchers. The first is former major leaguer Jae Weong Seo, who played in 2006, while Sukmin Yoon was on the team both years. Taehyon Chong has a wealth of experience after first donning the blue-and-white in 1999, including both Classics. Wongsam Jang has pitched sparingly in the WBC, but has seen success for Korea in other tourneys.

Seo had a five-year stint in MLB between 2003-2007, with several strong seasons. He was only 28-40, but pitched for weak teams during his career. Seo had a 4.60 ERA, but did much better in 2003, his rookie year (3.82), and 2005 (8-2, 2.59).

The right-hander pitched in the minor leagues between 1998 and 2007, losing more than a year to Tommy John surgery he had in 1999. He was 36-26 with a 3.48 ERA in the minors. Since 2008, he has been pitching in the KBO and has a 3.82 ERA.

Seo relied on a mid-90s fastball (150s kmh) and a strong changeup for a lot of strikeouts before his surgery, but had to reinvent himself after he recovered. He now throws a fastball in the low-90s, and added a slider, splitter, and curveball. Seo has usually exhibited strong control.

Seo was Korea’s best starter in 2006, tying Bartolo Colón of the Dominican Republic for second in ERA. He won his first two starts against Chinese Taipei (3.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 3 K) and Mexico (5.1 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K). The righty saved his best for Japan in the semifinals, tossing five scoreless frames, allowing only four baserunners, but Korea went on to lose.

Yoon started two games and relieved in a pair of others in 2009, pitching the tune of a 1.13 ERA. He was particularly effective against a loaded Venezuelan side, allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings. Yoon struck out four in the win, also notching a victory against China. He earned a pair of holds for his scoreless relief against Japan and Mexico.

Yoon has earned five wins with a 0.41 ERA when hurling for Korea. This includes five shutout innings against Chinese Taipei in his most recent national team start at the 2010 Asian Games. He has pitched in a variety of roles for the KBO and has a 3.12 career ERA in the league.

Chong has appeared in nine international tournaments for Korea. He has a 3-2 record and four saves, working in a variety of roles. Chong has a career 1.76 ERA for the national team with 75 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings. He won the strikeout title at the 2002 Intercontinental Cup.

The submarine-thrower has pitched five frames between the two Classics, allowing two runs and whiffing eight. In domestic competition, Chong’s ERA stands at 1.93, though with only 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

Jang has long been a workhorse for the blue-and-white. In the 2005 World Cup, he appeared in 7-of-11 games for Korea. One was an eight-inning shutout of South Africa. Jan’s 24 strikeouts in the tournament ranked fourth. Since then, he has toed the rubber in another five tourneys, including the 2009 Classic. Jang is 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA, though that includes a 5.06 mark at the last WBC. He has a 3.55 ERA and a 75-55 record in seven KBO campaigns.

Seo has a starting spot all but guaranteed, and will likely take the hill against Chinese Taipei. Yoon should also feature in the rotation, with Jang also potentially in line for a start. Chong may see action a starter and reliever. Anchoring the bullpen will be three pitchers that are new to the squad: Seunghwan Oh, Seunglak Son, and Heesoo Park.

Oh has seen action in four tournaments for Korea, compiling a 4.50 ERA with two losses and two saves. In an eight-year KBO career, he has a 1.69 ERA and has led the league in saves five times, setting a league record of 47 saves on two different occasions.

Son has only twice pitched for Korea, both times at the World Cup. He is 1-3 with a save and a 3.13 ERA, striking out 30 in 37 1/3 frames. The right-hander has a 3.78 ERA in Korea, but that number has dropped to 2.22 since he became a closer in 2010.

Park has a 1.97 ERA in the domestic circuit, working mostly as a setup man. His 2012 season was particular impressive, as he led the league in holds (34) on the strength of a 1.32 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 82 frames. Despite a fastball in the mid-80s (135 kmh), he has induced strikeouts at the rate of 9.9 per nine innings in his career. The left-hander had an ERA of 3.00 in the 2010 Intercontinental Cup, whiffing 15 in 12 innings.

JoongAng Daily has reported on Seo’s leadership qualities. “This is my last chance (to play in the WBC), so I want to lead the younger players well and get at least to the semifinals,” Seo told the paper.

As the oldest pitcher on the team and the only athlete to play in the Majors, Seo has been preparing the rest of the staff on their opponents and on the peculiarities of WBC pitch counts, though most international tournaments use a similar system.

“They won’t have any regrets if they just concentrate on each pitch,” concluded Seo.

The Classic also uses the same Rawlings ball as MLB, which Korean pitchers consider ‘slippery’. Seo has advised those other pitchers how to accommodate the different feel, as only three other hurlers have used it in a game situation.

“It is slippery, but it’ll be pitched with the help of a rosin bag (to improve grip) during the games,” Seo told the Daily. “I think it’ll get better if they pitch the ball with sweat on their hands.”

The Team
Some have speculated that the current roster is the weakest that Korea has entered into a World Baseball Classic, but the team has other ideas.

“I know the media and the public are worried about us,” said Dae-Ho Lee at a press conference on Feb. 12. “I was picked for the national team several times so far and it has never been so strong. We had good results [before] only because the players were united to do something great.”

“Team Korea gets stronger when it is deemed weak,” observed star Seung-Yeop Lee. He had similar thoughts for the Korea Times. “I will try my best to show Korean baseball is still strong.”

“Our strength is teamwork,” Lee remarked to the JoongAng Daily. “I will try my best and help the team to a better outcome. I will try to make a ‘Miracle of March’ happen.”

KBO is going above and beyond to ensure all the players’ needs are met. According to Chosun, Korea will be carrying two extra trainers beyond the normal three, and sprung for brand new suits and shoes for the team members to wear while travelling. Players will also be served at least one Korean meal a day “so they don’t feel too homesick.”

“They are the representatives of Korea and have already been tested,” declared Chan Ho Park, who will serve as a broadcaster for this Classic. “I hope they gain valuable experience through this event and use it as a solid foundation to move to a bigger league in the future.”

Manager Ryu went further, predicting a title as the Korean team was unveiled in Seoul on Jan. 23. “I will guarantee that Korea will be full of the sounds of heartbeats and applause of all countrymen in March.”

The road to the championship begins for Korea on Mar. 2 at 11:30 GMT against the Netherlands at the Intercontinental Baseball Stadium in Taichung. The Blue Bogy will contest Australia on Mar. 4 at 10:30 GMT before their showdown with Taiwan in the last game of the pool. The two will face off on Mar. 5 at 11:30 GMT.

Stay tuned for more news, previews, and recaps of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

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About Gabriel Fidler

Card Sharp is devoted to my chief indoor hobby-baseball (and occasionally football [that's soccer to you Americans], hockey, American football, and basketball) card collecting.
This entry was posted in Asia, Previews, South Korea, Tournaments, World Baseball Classic and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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