By Troy Stangarone
Much like soccer’s World Cup, the World Baseball Classic brings together national teams from around the world in an international tournament to compete for being the world’s best. Since the tournament began in 2006, South Korea has been one of the world’s best teams, taking part in each World Baseball Classic to date and finishing in second place in 2009. How do South Korea’s chances look in the 2017 tournament?
As South Korea kicks off this year’s tournament in the opening game against Israel, the 2017 team will be led by World Baseball Classic (WBC) veteran and St. Louis Cardinals’ closer, Oh Seung-hwan, also known as the “The Final Boss.” He will be joined by a collection of all-stars from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), but not by the other Korean born players in Major League Baseball (MLB). South Korea will be without prior WBC stars such as Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers and Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles, who are focused on spring training, as well as Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins who is trying to reestablish himself in the majors, Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers who is recovering from injuries, and Kang Jang-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates who is dealing with legal issues related to drunk driving.
It is not unusual for players in MLB to focus on Spring Training rather than take part in the WBC. Choo last played for Korea in 2009 and new players tend to break out each tournament such has Kim Hyun-soo did that same year when he hit over .500. Some players who may become new stars for South Korea at the 2017 WBC include:
Choi Hyung-woo: A power hitting leftfielder who was a KBO all-star in 2016 and runner up in the MVP race. He has averaged over 30 home runs in the last four years in the KBO and looks to be a major piece of Korea’s offense in the 2017 tournament.
Lee Dae-ho: Lee provides South Korea with another power bat and prior experience playing both in Japan and MLB with the Seattle Mariners. While Lee spent only one season with the Mariners, he hit 14 home runs in part-time play and should be a force in Korea’s lineup having hit .345 in the last two Word Baseball Classics.
Seo Geon-chang: One of Korea’s more talented infielders, Seo is a potential dynamic player for South Korea. He combines speed and moderate power as part of his game. In his 2014 KBO MVP season, he became the first player in KBO history to reach 200 hits in a season and also holds the single season records for runs scored and triples.
Jang Won-jun: Jang is one of two starters that South Korea is likely to lean on during the tournament. An all-star in 2016 who posted a 3.32 ERA, Jang is one of the better pitchers in the KBO. The lefthander features a fastball, slider, and change up.
Yang Hyeon-jong: Another lefthander, Yang will team with Jang Won-jun to give South Korea two strong starters at the top of their rotation. Yang is viewed as having the ability to be a number 3 starter in MLB and features a four pitch arsenal that includes a fastball that averages 92-95.
Beyond the South Korean national team, this World Baseball Classic will be special for South Korea as it will serve as one of the host nations for opening round play for the first time. While the KBO was only founded in 1982, baseball has continued to grow in popularity in South Korea, especially among the young and women. Hosting Group A play in the new Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea’s first enclosed stadium, will allow South Koreans to cheer on the national team as they take on Israel, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. Likely helping to continue driving the popularity of the game in South Korea.
What are South Korea’s chances in the WBC? Despite having moved out of the group stage in all but the last WBC, South Korea is projected to have a lower wins above replacement (WAR) total than two of its group stage competitors in Israel and the Netherlands. However, home field should give South Korea an advantage in group play and if South Korea is able to get a lead “The Final Boss” will be anchoring a bullpen that is projected to be better than all of its group stage competitors other than the Netherlands.
While South Korea’s roster may seem weaker than in years past based on available metrics relative to its competition, it is difficult to judge the talent level of teams’ non-MLB players. But South Korea holds an advantage over its other group competitors in that the KBO is probably the strongest professional league outside of the United States and Japan, giving Team Korea depth to draw from. Additionally, having a wealth of major league talent has not always been the key to success in the tournament as the United States knows too well. Its 2006 team featured a collection of MLB stars in their prime including Chipper Jones, Chase Utley, Vernon Wells, Matt Holiday, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter. That team finished 8th and was knocked out of the tournament in the second round.
However South Korea’s team performs, expect the Sky Dome to be rocking and for there to be lots of thunder sticks involved as South Koreans root on their team.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Charlton Clemen’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.