All-Star is over and now the leagues hurtles towards the conclusion of the reg…….wait! No, there’s another break in mid August for almost 3 weeks as the 2018 Asia Games get underway in Indonesia. So, we could effectively break this season down into 3 parts. Pre All Star; Pre Asia Games; Post Asia Games. In fact, the season will only really feel like we’ve arrived at the half-way point when the events in Indonesia draw to a close but, they then, most teams will have played 100+ of 144 games.
We simply won’t be able to gauge how much of an impact the Asia Games are until the teams resume play on September 4th. Normally, the first-placed team goes on to win the Korean Series despite nearly a month of no competitive baseball in October. However, this situation is different because every team is afforded 3 weeks of rest and Doosan Bears are the bulk suppliers to the national team.
If the wheels come off Doosan’s season in September, they’ll have legitimate gripes with the timing of the Games. Nonetheless, everyone knew the state of play when the season began and the Bears could conceivably be well out of sight by then anyway.
Here are 3 big questions for the next half of the season.
Can the Hanwha Eagles hold on?
Sometimes I have to keep checking the Naver standings to try and make sense of Hanwha’s season. Is this really happening? When will they hit a patch of bad form? Surely they’ll be found out soon? At the time of writing, Hanwha Eagles are second in the KBO standings, just 6 games back from leaders Doosan Bears. They are 2 clear of SK Wyverns in 3rd, 4 clear of LG Twins in 4th and a whopping 8.5 ahead of Nexen Heroes, who hold onto the final play-off spot. KIA Tigers, in 6th, are 10 games back from Hanwha.
The Eagles’ ambition now shouldn’t be holding onto a coveted place-off spot, one they haven’t enjoyed for a decade. They are on course for their best ever season and finishing second or third would represent a monumentally good season. Doing so would also afford them a short break after the regular season is done. With a second placed finish, they can put their feet up for at least a week as the wild card followed by the first round of the play-offs get under way. Hanbat will be waiting for whoever advances that far, and no team will enjoy it.
Such has been their success, Hanwha could afford to drop Jason Wheeler and pick up ex MLB pitcher David Hale at a crucial point in the season. Mid-season replacements don’t always work out as players struggle to adjust to a new league. However, Hanwha have enough breathing space over their rivals to make this work. They’re the third current top 5 team – after Doosan and Nexen Heroes – to make an alteration to their foreign staff in 2018.
Hale has a 10-10 MLB record and a career 4.49 ERA in 70 games for Atlanta Braves, Colorado Rockies, Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees. In 172 minor league games, Hale has a win-loss of 37-46 with a 4.20 ERA. The Eagles know these changes are unpredictable but this is a gamble they feel they need to make.
Who will make a charge from the chasing pack?
Every year, a team comes from south of mid-table and makes an unexpected charge towards a play-off spot. In recent seasons, LG Twins have made 2 post-season appearances having been effectively written off at this point. In 2017, Lotte Giants powered their way from mid-table mediocrity all the way to third, before a shattering first round loss to NC Dinos.
Even Doosan Bears advanced spectacularly after All Star last season, coming from 9 games back to almost snatch the pennant race on the final day of the season. The teams currently outside the top 5 are;
- KIA Tigers: 6th. 41-45. 58 games left.
- Lotte Giants: 7th. 38-2-47. 57 games left.
- Samsung Lions: 8th. 53 games left.
- kt wiz: 9th. 56 games left.
- NC Dinos: 10th. 53 games left.
Tigers (more on them below) are probably the best equipped team to make a charge given their undoubted pedigree, but they’ve been so wonderfully underwhelming in 2018 that a painstakingly slow death would seem the most reasonable outcome.
Lotte Giants were heavily tipped to finish high up the table, but an awful start put them on the back foot immediately. Lotte have one of the best batting cards in the league but their team is rather lob-sided. In June, they broke records, but not all were good. Their bullpen is poor, even by KBO standards. They can challenge, but they need to stop blowing saves.
The Giants batters weren’t the only ones setting records in June – the bullpen also got its name in the history books. The pitchers allowed an embarrassing 10 come-from-behind victories in June and recorded an astounding eight blown saves. As a result, the Giants is the only club in the KBO to have its bullpen ERA above 7, at 7.01.
Samsung Lions still look like a team in transition mode and are lacking too many top class players to make a legitimate push. Their starting pitchers are all just about okay but the line up really lacks depth.
kt wiz and NC Dinos make up the table, and both are surely too far back now to threaten a play-off position. For kt, finishing somewhere other than 10th would represent their best ever KBO season for final league position. Bottom would represent NC’s worst ever final position.
KIA or Lotte to make a run but the odds are stacked against Lotte.
Are the defending champions a busted flush?
As we discussed last week, KIA Tigers are doing just enough to stay in the conversation, but are so uninspiring in 2018 that any hopes and dreams for retaining their trophy have already been quashed. They’re just not very good right now, with almost every player experiencing a dip in form. They suddenly look like an old team, which is probably why manager Kim Ki-tae has spent much of the last month blooding new talent.
They have some of the necessary ingredients to pose problems. Their offense – led by second baseman An Chi-hong – is stacked with experienced, championship winning players. KIA have a settled look to their line-up and some of their starting pitchers are damn good. Whisper it gently, but even Yoon Suk-min is beginning to find his feet.
But, the rest of the bullpen is either substandard or off-form. Moreover, some key players from 2017, like Lee Myeong-ki, Kim Min-sik and Na Ji-hwan, are bouncing between the first team and the minors. And, they have really struggled all season to get their players fit for even a short period of time. Their season isn’t done, but now’s the time to start showing like they are contenders. KIA ended their pre All Star schedule being swept by NC Dinos. That can’t happen again.