The KIA Tigers are, on-form, the worst team in Korean baseball going into the All Star break. A 5 game losing streak is bad enough, but having the last-placed NC Dinos sweep you midweek makes it so much worse. KIA are the defending champions, but sit 6th in the table, 3 games back from Nexen Heroes and the final play-off spot.
This could well be the least impressive title defense since 2010 when the champions went on an epic franchise-record 18 game losing run to end up in the bottom half of the table. The team? Yeah, you guessed it. KIA Tigers.
KIA have a 40-45 record and are 17.5 games back from the team, Doosan Bears, they beat to win the Korean Series last season. Lotte Giants are also in the running for the league’s most useless team, having suffered a sweep of their own. Lotte are 2-8 in their last 10, but then they’ve been stuck in the basement for most of the year. KIA really shouldn’t be losing all three games in Masan.
Fortunately, there is still plenty of time left, but a combination of form, injury, bizarre bullpen changes and general flatness across the team has left most fans feeling very pessimistic.
The harsh reality is none of the front-line Tigers, who powered the team to first spot early in 2017 and kept them there despite a resurgent Bears in the second half of the season, are performing to the same level in 2018. With one exception.
Second baseman An Chi-hong. Before the All Star break, An was batting a league second .373 (having stood at a whopping .412 a few weeks previously), with 16 home runs (team best), 70 RBIS (league 6th), 1.039 OPS (league 3rd), .444 RISP and a WAR of 3.53. With roughly half the season to go, An is well on course to break his personal record of 21 home runs and 93 RBIs. He is striking out less than 2017, too.
The decline is form has been dramatic for some players. DH Na Ji-hwan hasn’t featured in the line up since one at bat on July 3rd. Na has a cult following for his weird on-field demeanor, but he’s batting just .241 with 12 home runs and 40 RBIs. 3B Lee Beom-ho has shown glimpses of form, but, at 37, the Tigers are starting to look at his replacement. Choi Hyeong-woo, likewise, has been solid but definitely a dip from 2017.
Then there’s catcher Kim Min-sik and RF Lee Myeong-gi. They formed part of a massive 4-for-4 trade with SK Wyverns in April 2017. Little was expected but both delivered to help KIA win the championship last October. Lee, a decent-if-unspectacular OF with the Wyverns, filled the roles of RF and lead-off which KIA have lacked since Lee Yong-kyu defected to Hanwha Eagles 4 years ago. Kim filled a hole behind home-plate that has existed since the beginning of time. In June, both players were sent down to the minors and only just came back.
Roger Bernadina was also sent down in June, with the official line from the club being injury. Some reports suggested the team wasn’t overly happy with his form, as Bernadina had committed 3 errors in the early part of the season, compared to 0 last time. However, the popular CF in back in the line-up and is in contention of joining the 30-30 club, having just missed out in 2017. He has 23 stolen bases already (league first) and is 15 short of the milestone for homers.
In the pitching department, the Tigers are again woefully under-performing out of the bullpen. But, that’s nothing new. Amazing to think the defending champions don’t have a single reliable arm to unleash in the 7th inning to hold a slender lead. That, however, is for another day.
Pat Dean, the RHP who bounced back from a shaky start to his KIA career to play a vital role in Korean Series, looks another bad start from an early release to his contract. Ace lefty Yang Hyeon-jeong (9-7) is still one of the league’s best pitchers with a k/BB of 4.42 and 3.62 WAR (league second).
KIA Tigers are quite an old-team with a string of disappointing draft picks since 2009, but if there has been one shining light in 2018, it the sheer number of young players who are getting game-time now. We’ll write about this again some time, but consider the following names were present during the series loss to NC Dinos.
Choi Won-jun (1997); Ryu Seong-hyeon (1997); Han Seung-taek (1994); Shin Beom-su (1998); Yoo Seung-cheol (1998).
The Tigers need to put together a run soon, or they’ll be cut adrift. Nexen have barged their way into contention, adding the considerable experience of Eric Hacker to an already well-oiled machine. Here are their season records against the other 9 teams. Some make for depressing reading.
- Doosan Bears. 5-6.
- Hanwha Eagles. 2-6.
- SK Wyverns. 5-4.
- LG Twins. 5-7.
- Nexen Heroes. 5-7.
- Lotte Giants. 2-4.
- Samsung Lions. 3-2.
- kt wiz. 6-5
- NC Dinos. 5-6.
The Tigers have 59 games left to play. There’s a long break in August to re-charge their batteries, so time is on their side. But, form isn’t. They can forget about retaining their title for now. They have a huge battle just to make 5th.