Hanwha Eagles pulled down the curtain on the month of June with a walk-off 3-run bomb by Ji Seong-jun. It brought up their 48th win of the season and left them second in the table, best placed to challenge the league’s most outstanding team, Doosan Bears.
Let’s just consider this: with over half the season done, Hanwha Eagles are second with a record of 48 wins, 33 losses and 0 ties. That’s a 60% win-loss record for a team many expected to be rooted to the bottom of the table.
The Eagles are 6 games back from Doosan, but despite tough games against Kia Tigers (6th – away), SK Wyverns (3rd – away) and Nexen Heroes (5th – home) all before the short All Star break next week, Hanwha should follow Doosan above the 50-win mark and continue to set the pace for those chasing the Bears.
Incredibly, the Eagles are 5-1 against the defending champions, Tigers, this season. They also notched their first Kia sweep in over 2,000 days earlier on this season. Against the Wyverns, Hanwha are 3-6 but versus Nexen, they hold a slender 6-5 lead.
To put this into perspective, last season Hanwha finished 8th with 61 wins from 144 games. With a month to go before the Asia Games break, they have ample time to smash their entire 2017 record.
In 2015 and 2016, the Eagles recorded 68 and 66 wins respectfully. Before then, it was a Daejeon nightmare.
2014: in 128 games (9 team league before kt wiz were participating), the Eagles ended the season with 49 wins, 77 losses and 2 ties for a .389 record.
2013: 42-85-1 for a ghastly .331 record.
2012: in a 133 game 8 team league before NC Dinos joined, 53-77-3 for a .408 winning percentage. 3 straight seasons of last place finishes before kt joined the league.
It is exactly 10 years since Hanwha last finished with a winning record. A 64-62 return saw them in 5th spot, just one game away from defending champions SK Wyverns. It wasn’t good enough for a spot in the play-offs as only 8 teams made up the league. Since then, it has been a string of poor finishes.
In between all that, there was the wheelbarrow load of money they received when Ryu Hyeon-jin swapped Daejeon for Los Angeles. They invested some of that in championship winning players, like Jeong Gun-woo from SK and Kia Tigers’ lead off Lee Yong-kyu. They seemed like wise investments at the time but a combination of injury and poor form saw Hanwha continue to struggle.
On other free agents, money was wasted. In signing Song Eun-beom, the veteran pitcher from the Tigers, Hanwha lost a great prospect. Sidearm righty Im Ki-yong would go on to win the Korean Series with the Tigers in 2017, starting Game 4 in Jamsil versus Doosan Bears.
So, a decade has passed since their last respectable finish and 11 years since they tasted postseason baseball. In 2007, Hanwha ended in 3rd spot, 7.5 games from top with a 67-57-2 record. Sadly, Doosan swept them in the best-of-5 so this has been a very long time between drinks.
Why are they so good this time?
Looking at team and individual numbers, Hanwha are definitely better than the sum of their parts. They have the best closer in the league, one of the best batters and a couple of steady starters. But they seem to be flourishing at aspects of the game which don’t have a number; confidence, teamwork and attitude.
Jung Woo-ram is their 33 year old closer. This season he has 24 saves from 33 games. He has faced 125 batters in 31.2 innings pitched, allowed 6 walks, given up only one home run and 7 earned runs. His WHIP is 0.92 and his BB/9 has dropped dramatically this season. Last year, he finished with 26 saves. In 2012 for SK, a career high 30.
With the bat, Jared Hoying was recruited in the off-season and has proved an instant success. Hoying is 3 hits shy of 100 and is second in RBIs with 75. Eagles fans often salivate over his excellent fielding and throwing as much as his 21 home runs for the season.
Hoying collected more All Star fan votes than any other foreign batter in the league, with 424,665. His peers also recognised him with 144 player votes. Teammate Jung collected 54.13 All Star points, the most of any player on the Nanum team.
And then there’s Seo Kyun, the little known right handed relief pitcher. This is Seo’s second season in the KBO and he also heads to next week’s All Star having swept the popularity voting. He sneaks into the top 10 for holds, whilst maintaining impressively low ERA and WHIP stats.
Despite a few other notable examples, Hanwha look a team that is hugely over-achieving. Credit for this surely lays with manager Han Yong-duk, the slightly bearded 53-year-old former pitcher who spent his entire playing career with the Eagles. This is his first season as manager.
According to people who watch Hanwha regularly, Han has just simplified their baseball. He makes intelligent, rational decisions which have made the games fun and brought a smile back to the faces of the players.
As the humid summer days roll in and players get injured or lose form, we’ll get a clearer picture of where the Eagles stand this season.
However, at least the controversial days are over under the depressing regimes of Kim Eung-yong and Kim Seung-geun. Those who have followed this league for a long time will recall the savage boot camp training sessions on muddy Japanese fields in winter. Filthy players dragged through the mud which would do little to improve their fortunes.
There were also painstakingly slow pitching changes that regularly saw Eagles games go beyond 4 hours. Kwon Hyuk was a championship winning pitcher with Samsung. Hanwha used him so often from the bullpen that he was matching some starters for innings pitched.
Throw in the accusations of using cameras to spy on the Tigers bullpen during a game in Cheongju, farcical fielding errors and many more. All in all, a recipe for disaster. This was what had become known of the Eagles.
Internationally, Hanwha made the headlines when Ryu left for the Dodgers and when robot fans were introduced. This season, the Eagles are writing new headlines and new scripts. I doubt there’ll be a baseball fan in the country who’d wish against a sustained title challenge for the long-suffering Eagles.
Added to all that, they have the coolest uniforms in the league! Hanwha Fighting!