After the shortest preseason in KBO history. the Lotte Giants kicked off their 2018 campaign with a 7 game losing streak that marked the team’s worst start to a season in franchise history. Over the first 14 games of the season, the Giants have continued a run of poor play that has seen them pick up only 3 wins, none of them in an opposing team’s stadium. The Giants now sit in the cellar of the KBO, 2 games behind the joint eighth place LG Twins and Samsung Lions, and 7.5 games behind the first place Doosan Bears.
So, what is going wrong in Sajik? There are three factors at work that are affecting the team: Pitching, Hitting, and Management.
Among the Lotte roster, a lot of the blame has been levied at, pitcher Félix Doubront for under-performing this season. Since his first outing against the SK Wyverns on opening day, Doubront has racked up an 11.37ERA and a 2.05 WHIP across 3 games, conceding 14 hits (2 home runs), and 12 walks, striking out 5 in 12 2/3 innings pitched. Only Hanwha Eagle’s Keyvius Sampson has conceded more walks this season (14), however Sampson boasts the second highest number of strikeouts in the league with 23 this season.
In contrast to Doubront, Lotte’s other import-pitcher, Brooks Raley, has pitched two consecutive quality starts over 7, and 7 2/3 innings in his previous two outings, this season boasts a 2.75 ERA, and a 1.12 WHIP recording just 5 walks, and ranking joint sixth in strikeouts with former team mate, Josh Lindblom with 18.
While Doubront’s poor performance is a factor, a more notable deficiency in Lotte’s pitching is due to the lack of two quality players. Starting pitcher, Park SeWoong (박세웅), and bullpen pitcher Jo JeongHun (조정훈) are both currently absent after reporting elbow pain during the preseason. The absence of both players has left a hole in the long-reliever, and set-up slots in the bullpen with Song SeungJun (송승준) moving back to the starting rotation, and Jin MyeongHo (진명호) getting the call-up from the Futures league. Over the first 14 games of the season, the Lotte Giants’ pitchers have given up 81 walks, averaging 6 walks a game.
With a large number of these walks coming from the bullpen, the Giants have struggled to maintain, or contest leads in games where they have managed to outhit their opposition.
Despite a marked improvement in Lotte’s offense over the past 6 games, the Giants have struggled to drive in their runners in scoring position, only managing to score 57 runs this season while striking out 119 times, only the Nexen Heroes have managed more with 131. The Giants batting order currently has the second lowest team batting average in the KBO (0.256), and third least number of home runs hit this season (12).
While the acquisitions of Min ByeongHeon (민병헌), Lee ByeongGyu (이병규), and Chae TaeIn (채태인) are all proving worthwhile as each player finds their respective stride, Lotte’s rookie catchers, Na WonTak (나원탁), and Na JongDeok (나종덕) are not enjoying as positive a start to the season as the team may have hoped – the former raising concern about his abilities to block the ball, and the latter for his 0.05 batting average out of 24 plate appearances. Following the introduction of Kim SaHun (김사훈) back into the first team Lotte have looked more threatening at the plate, but there are still concerns over the lack of power in their lineup following the loss of Kang MinHo (강민호) and Choi JunSeok (최준석) to free agency in the off-season.
This year in the KBO there is a divide in team management that following the return of Kim HyunSoo (김현수), Park ByungHo (박병호), and Hwang JaeGyun (황재균) from MLB is becoming much more pronounced. A number of teams such as KIA, SK, kt and Nexen are favouring a lineup stacked with guys who can hit for power. Other teams such as Doosan, NC and Lotte are favouring a small-ball approach. The Lotte Giants manager, Jo WonWoo (조원우) is currently a manager telling a small-ball oriented roster that’s missing two of it’s key pitchers to play big-inning baseball.
The success of this approach is evident from the first 14 games of the season where the Giants have only managed to hit 12 home runs. Among the other KBO teams, only the Samsung Lions (10), and the first place Doosan Bears (11) have hit fewer. So, why are Doosan in first, when they are hitting less home runs than last place Lotte?
Team offense and base running statistics for the Doosan Bears, and Lotte Giants (April 10, 2018. Statistics from Statiz)
With 12 less plate appearances this season the Doosan Bears roster has managed to score 13 more runs than the Lotte Giants. Disregarding the number of walks and the team batting averages, Doosan have managed to manufacture more from the runners they have had on base than Lotte. The two teams’ management of base runners differs in two clear ways – steals, and sacrifice hits.
While the Lotte Giants have no shortage of fast players, the management seems almost afraid to give them the green light to attempt to steal or bunt this season. This has often limited the Giant’s offense to scoring runs off of three hits in a single inning and has seen them strand a number of base runners this season that would have otherwise been brought home by a base hit. However, given the number of injuries sustained by key players in previous seasons it is understandable why Lotte’s management may be cautions about sending runners.
This two-dimensional offensive strategy has been capped off by confusing bullpen management that has seen very sparing usage of last season’s saves leader, Son SeungLak (손승락). Son, who has taken the mound 5 times so far this season, took the mound with a 5 run lead in the second game of the weekend series against the LG Twins in Sajik, but not in the third game, when the Giants entered the top of the ninth inning tied at 2-2. Instead, Park JinHyeong (박진형) took the mound before giving up 2 runs. The Giants would proceed to lose the game 4-2.
This season there appears to be a lack of defined roles in the Lotte bullpen, with Park JinHyeong in particular being moved between set-up, closer, and long reliever on a regular basis. In his 7 outings this season, Park has often been left in for a fourth or fifth hitter, and has not once this season finished an outing throwing fewer than 18 pitches.
With better tactics, and more pitching stability, the Lotte Giants have the potential to be a playoff caliber team, but as things stand, autumn ball looks likely to remain a distant dream for the Giants.