Long before you break down the performance of every team in the 2017 KBO season, and how they’ve fared against each other, one stat jumps off the page when you’re looking at the current standings.
That is how many teams have winning percentages above .500. The number currently stands at 7. There are 10 teams in this league, and 70% of them have won over half their games. We’ve never seen a season like this before, but I would guess we are likely to see more in the coming seasons.
Why? Part of the reason why this season has been so exciting is none of the teams look particularly impressive. The top 7 are very capable of beating each other, which makes predicting the final outcome a very difficult job. The top 2, Kia Tigers and Doosan Bears, could well end up in those positions with NC assured of postseason baseball, but from what finishing position?
The gap between the middle ranked teams and those at the summit can be bridged by successful scouting of top foreign players, and then paying them what they want. In many cases, we have already seen this. Pat Dean has experienced a turbulent season with the league leading Tigers, and he has been let down by the bullpen on too many occasions. But of the other 4 teams (Doosan, NC, Lotte Giants and LG Twins) in the current playoffs positions, how many would trade one of their pitchers for Dean? None.
Then there’s the free agent market, which last season saw some big names head for new homes. It is unlikely that Yang Ye-ji (Doosan, catcher) and Kang Min-ho (Lotte, catcher) will move teams, but who knows. Catcher is a problematic position for most clubs, and if either player decided to test the market, they might see dizzying sums of money waved in their general direction.
And there are more. Min Byeong-hyeon (Doosan), Chae Tae-in (Nexen), Kim Ju-chan (Kia), Jeong Eui-yoon (SK), Son A-seop (Lotte) and Kim Sang-su (Samsung) will have plenty of admirers if they choose to move on. Potentially, any squad in the league could become very competitive if one or two of those players were added.
So what separates Kia and Doosan from the rest? Why are they both ahead of the chasing pack, despite not playing baseball worthy of winning the championship?
For Doosan, the answer is pretty clear. They have retained a championship winning roster with almost no alterations. Their lack of dominance this season can be put down to many factors (such as injuries to key players), but the biggest difference between this season and 2016, is how much their starting pitchers have struggled, with the possible exception of Jang Won-jun.
Jang’s win-loss record will be slightly different but he’s on course to play more games, pitch more innings and have a lower ERA. Although, his WAR is significantly down. Dustin Nippert, 2016 MVP, is still pretty competitive (2nd in strikeouts, top 10 for wins and ERA), but he has been smacked around a lot lately.
Michael Bowden has battled injuries this year and finally looks close to his best. But he’s still on a 2-5 record for 2017 (after an exceptional 18-7 last year) with a high ERA and a low WAR. Yoo Hee-gwon, not really a fan favourite, is running out of luck, they say.
For the Kia Tigers, it might simply be a case of having done some exceptional preseason business combined with the return of key infielders from military service.
The Tigers invested wisely in the free agent market, bringing in former Samsung Lions slugger Choi Heong-woo on a four-year deal. Choi leads the league for RBIs and is generally regarded as one of the outstanding candidates for this season’s MVP award. Meanwhile, the Tigers retained the services of star left-handed pitcher Yang Heon-jeong for one more season. Yang currently leads the league with 18 wins. Roger Bernadina has also successfully filled the void left by former first baseman Brett Pill.
The SK Wyverns might look to replace Scott Diamond and Jamie Romak, but of the 6 teams ranked ahead of them, all should be more or less content with their foreign stars, save for a potential change for Dean and LG actually having a foreign field player. With the addition of a major FA signing, and keeping what you have, there’s no reason to believe 2018 will be any different.
Back to the current standings, let’s compare to every year since the league expanded to 9 teams.
Whichever two teams miss out on the playoffs this year will feel rightly aggrieved. There was a huge gap between the top 3 last year and the rest. This time round, it is incredibly tight. If I gave you $100 now, who would you back to win?