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An American Knuckleballer in Korea

This is Sung Min Kim’s fourth piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. (He gets a couple extra days because of the month’s brevity.) Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

Knuckleballers are rare. Lefty knuckleballers, even more so. Consider: Wikipedia’s list of knuckleball pitchers features 29 names. Only four of them are left-handers.

Knuckleballers are even more rare in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). In the 36-year history of the league, there’s only been one ever. This one happens to be a lefty, though.

Some MLB fans will recognize the name: LHP Ryan Feierabend. Selected in the third round by the Mariners out of an Ohio high school back in 2003, Feierabend made it to the majors as a 20-year-old in 2006 but had only 25 major-league appearances with Seattle in three seasons. From 2010 to 2013, he was a journeyman, making the rounds through the Mariners, Phillies, Reds, and Rangers systems, as well as the Atlantic League. In 2014, Feierabend resurfaced back in MLB for six appearances with Texas, but after that season, he signed a deal with Nexen Heroes of the KBO.

Feierabend told me that the Nexen Heroes showed interest in him about a year before the signing. “The time was summer 2013. I was in Triple-A Round Rock and was having a pretty good season,” Feierabend recalled. (He produced a 6-5 record and 3.66 ERA in 120.1 IP.) “As the season went on, more and more teams from Korea became intrigued with me. About four different scouts gave me their business cards, but only one of them — from Nexen Heroes — stayed in touch.” Later, in November 2015, the Heroes finally made an offer and told him that he had 72 hours to make a decision.

“Well, here I am four years later, so I definitely signed,” Feierabend said.

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How Korean Baseball Briefly Shortened Time of Game

This is Sung Min Kim’s third piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. (He gets a couple extra days because of the month’s brevity.) Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

Pace of play has, without a doubt, become a hot-potato subject in MLB and for commissioner Rob Manfred. The league, of course, recently made some rule changes in order to quicken game flow, alterations that mostly concern things like mound visits, commercial breaks, instant replay, and the timing of pitching changes. We even had a league executive make some, uh, interesting propositions about the ninth inning.

While many of MLB’s proposals this offseason have focused on improving pace of play, other possible rule changes have sought to more explicitly shorten games. One such idea is to increase the size of the strike zone. The idea here is straightforward: more strikes means quicker at-bats, and quicker at-bats means quicker games.

With the new pace-of-play measures already announced, we won’t be seeing a bigger strike zone yet. However, another league already put that measure in practice in 2017. Last year, before the season’s start, the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) announced that they were going to adopt a wider strike zone.

The KBO made the decision for different reasons than MLB would. First, it seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to Team Korea’s poor showing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. South Korea, the host of Group A in the first round of the tournament, was eliminated after the first two games, losing to Israel and the Kingdom of Netherlands (though they did beat Taiwan in their third and final contest). That early exit served as a wake-up call, inspiring league officials to think critically about the game.

But there was another reason for the change. KBO has been a high-offense environment for the past few seasons. From 2014 to 2016, the league enjoyed an average OPS of .807, .787, and .801 respectively. It was not always this way, though. As recently as 2012, KBO skewed more pitcher-friendly, believe it or not. That season, the league had a .698 OPS. Since then, hitter OPS has increased by about 100 points in just seasons, which is significant.

I could write a whole article on why that is. But for now, we’ll stick to the strike zone. After the offensive environment of the last few years, officials felt that the balance needed to shift back towards pitching after three consecutive years of inflated run-scoring. By increasing the strike-zone width and calling more strikes, pitchers would gain some advantage.

When announcing the change, the head KBO umpire official Kim Poong-Gi explained that the league would not explicitly re-define the strike zone. Rather, the intent was to maximize the size within the regulated measure. That meant, hypothetically, the pitch that touches any portion of zone boundary would be considered a strike.

And the new zone did inspire change.

Two pitches don’t conclusively prove the point, but as examples, here is Kim Gyeong-Un of the Hanwha Eagles, taking a pitch for a ball on May 18, 2016.

And here is Min Byung-Hun of the Doosan Bears taking a called strike three on a pitch in a very similar location on August 31, 2017.

The new mandate not only affected ball and strike calls but also average game length. In 2016, the average KBO game lasted 3 hours and 23 minutes. In 2017? Just 3 hours and 17 minutes. It is perhaps noteworthy, as well, that for the first month of the season, the average game length was 3 hours and 12 minutes, a whole 11 minutes shaved off the previous mark. That seems even more significant! So, hypothetically, the strike-zone change could be a practical short-term solution to quicken games.

There is a nagging question, though — namely, what happened after that first month? If we compare April to the rest of the season, we do see differences in strikeout rate and called-strike rate

2017 KBO Ball-Strike Numbers
Month K% BB% Pitches/PA Strike% Called-Strike% Swinging-Strike%
April 18.5% 7.8% 3.83 64.2% 28.3% 14.4%
After 17.4% 8.0% 3.86 63.5% 27.3% 14.5%

The five-minute jump between April and everything after that seems significant enough to demand an explanation. Two theories are often invoked. The first is that hitters got acclimated to the change, decided to adapt a more aggressive approach, and produced. The second is that the umpires gradually went back to the previous strike zone.

The first theory is going to take some numbers to support. The wider strike zone bumped up the strikeout rate and reduced the walk rate throughout the league. As you see below, there were definitely more called strikes. As a result, hitters became a bit more aggressive.

Strike-Ball Numbers, KBO
Year K% BB% Pitch/PA Strike% Swing% Swing Ks Look Ks
2016 16.9% 9.3% 3.89 61.9% 45.3% 7427 2316
2017 17.6% 8.0% 3.86 63.7% 46.1% 7389 2620

Given the changes, more strikeouts, fewer walks, and more swings are to be expected. Hitters hit .272/.339/.400 in April and .289/.357/.447 from May till the end of the season. And most importantly, for the league’s purposes, here are the overall league slash lines:

2016: .290/.364/.437
2017: .286/.353/.438

The new strike-zone measure, while initially helping with the pace of play, did little to address the run-scoring environment. You could argue that the new strike zone encouraged hitters to be more aggressive and resulted in more balls put in play. The league 2017 BABIP of .327 is not much of a change from .326 and .331 from the previous two seasons. As the slugging percentage would indicate, the power did not die down either. In fact, the home-run total increased from 1,483 to 1,547. All in all, after a blip in the first month, the hitters simply continued to rake, and the game length regressed back to the norm.

The second point however, is partially confirmed. As the new rule was implemented, it became clear that pitches that did not touch the strike zone boundaries were often called strikes. In a mid-July interview, Kim Poong-Gi admitted that they “tweaked” the strike zone to make it smaller than it was in April. “Because the strike zone was overly wide in April, we adjusted it a bit smaller,” Kim said, “but we are still enforcing the wider strike zone width.” If that is true, then the numbers may back up the correlation. In April, the league ERA was at 4.46. It increased to 4.63 in May and saw a dramatic rise in June to 5.64.

That brought attention to a new problem: consistency. It can be hard enough to enforce a new measure. It gets harder when every umpire has a different zone.

The wide-strike-zone experiment, for now, is still an experiment in the KBO. Kim Poong-Gi announced in December that the league will continue to use wider strike zone in 2018. It’s very doubtful that it will solve the run-scoring issue in 2018 with the current pool of hitting and pitching talent in the KBO. Regarding pace of play, it would be easier to conclude something meaningful if there wasn’t such a disparity between the first month of game and the rest of the season’s. Other factors might account for some of the change in game length. Given the fluctuating game length trend and the overall inconsistencies, one could say that the strike-zone change created more problems that it solved. Does that mean that MLB should ditch the idea completely? Not necessarily. If the umpires can enforce a consistently sized zone throughout the season and give the players a good idea what to expect, then it could be executed decently.

Of course, another thing to note is that, throughout the baseball history, the strike-zone rules have changed multiple times. The regulation was not passed on a stone tablet like the Ten Commandments. It has been a product of adjustments according to the environment. For instance, in 1968, The Year of the Pitcher, MLB experienced an all-time pitcher-friendly season during which hitters slashed a mere .237/.299/.340 overall, with pitchers thriving to the tune of a 2.98 ERA. In 1969, the league responded by reducing the strike-zone size. In 1987, the league saw a then-record 4,458 home runs in a season. MLB adjusted the strike zone before the 1988 season by increasing the size. So it goes. The odds are that we will see another strike-zone change in future. Whether it will be for the pace of play remains to be seen.

All stats from Statiz unless otherwise specified.


Asia Is No Longer a Last Stop for Major Leaguers

This is Sung Min Kim’s second piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

For the first post of my residency, I examined the biggest names in Asia who could soon come over to U.S. Because of the massive amount of attention MLB gets from local media and fans, people keep their eyes peeled on potential Asia-to-MLB transactions.

What does not get as much attention, however, is the reverse. Teams in Asia (for the purposes of this article, I’m specifically referring to teams in Japan and South Korea) diligently scout players Stateside, mainly scouring the Pacific Coast League, the International League, and sometimes even Mexico or independent ball to fill out their foreign-player roster. The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), a 10-team league, has a cap of three foreign players per team, while the Nippon Professional League (NPB), a 12-team league, has a cap of four foreign players on its major-league rosters, and no cap on its minor-league rosters.

Sure, it may not be as newsworthy as an MLB team signing an exciting talent from Asia (remember the buzz Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani generated this offseason?), but there are reasons to keep track of players crossing the Pacific to the Far East. In recent years, the players traveling to Asia are likely quite familiar to everyday baseball fans in the U.S. That hasn’t always been the case. For some time, playing baseball in Asia was seen more as a destination of last resort for players who could not find their way in the majors or were past their prime. Rather than signing ex-big leaguers looking to “collect their last paychecks,” however, Asian clubs are now signing younger players on the fringes of the big leagues — the so-called “Quad-A” player — and even, in some instances, players who are on a major-league 40-man roster.

Players are also now realizing that their careers don’t “go to die” in Asia. Rather, it is sometimes an opportunity for them to play well, get better, and return to Major League Baseball. With MLB teams having increased their scouting presence in the NPB and KBO, we have seen notable recent cases of American players thriving there and securing a guaranteed MLB contract.

One such player is, of course, Milwaukee 1B/OF Eric Thames. After recording a .799 OPS in the Orioles’ and Mariners’ minor-league systems in 2013, Thames signed with the NC Dinos of the KBO, where he proceeded to record video-game numbers, slashing .349/.451/.721 with 124 home runs and a 188 wRC+ from 2014 to 2016. Following the third of those season, the Brewers signed Thames to a $16-million contract with a $7.5 million club option for 2020. In his first season back in the MLB, Thames produced a 124 wRC+ with a 2.1 WAR while hitting 31 home runs for the Brewers. Not bad.

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The Top MLB Prospects of Asia

This is not only one of the final installments of Prospect Week 2018, but also Sung Min Kim’s first piece as part of his February residency at FanGraphs. Sung Min is a staff writer for River Avenue Blues, the biggest independent New York Yankees blog on the web, and has freelanced for various publications including Deadspin, Sporting News, VICE Sports, the Washington Post, and more. He can also be found on Twitter. He’ll be contributing regularly here this month. Read the work of all our residents here.

While I’ve been an ardent follower of Major League Baseball since middle school, my interest in the sport increased considerably when I began following the Asian leagues closely. There are three popular leagues in East Asia: Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) based in Japan, Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) based in Korea, and the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) based in Taiwan. I was “born into” the KBO because of my Korean nationality. I slowly learned more about the NPB, though, as I grew up and Korean stars like Tae-Kyun Kim, Samson Lee, Seung-Yeop Lee, etc., headed there to play.

At around the time I was becoming more well acquainted with the particulars of the aforementioned leagues, major-league teams also began showing greater interest in Asian talent. Daisuke Matsuzaka’s move to Boston was particularly significant to raising the profile of Asian baseball in the States. Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka made their own splashes by bringing posting fees to their respective NPB teams and earning big contracts right out of Japan. Hyun-Jin Ryu’s move to the Dodgers was a landmark event, too, as it represented the first time ever that a Korean-born KBO player landed a big multi-year deal with a major-league club. More recently, of course, the entire Shohei Ohtani storyline — which ultimately landed the two-way star in Anaheim — has unfolded in very public fashion. There are more I’d mention but I’ll spare you for now.

It’s clear that more attention has shifted to the Asian leagues’ top players. There are clear major-league talents on the east side of the globe, and some of them — mostly the star-level types in each respective league — have decided to forego the comfort of their domestic leagues to challenge themselves in a whole new culture.

Some of those experiments have worked out, some have not. It is not easy to predict how a particular player will do in majors because there are so many factors to weigh. Skill is one thing. There are also cultural adjustments, too, and subtle differences to which players must adjust on the field. For instance, early in his MLB career, Hideki Matsui had difficulty dealing with the two-seam-heavy approach utilized by some pitchers. It is difficult to become adequate in all these aspects right away — especially for those players who are expected to start. Nonetheless, many Asian players dream of playing in the majors.

So, here, I present a list — accompanied by scouting reports — of six prospects playing in Asia. For this list, I considered only those players who (a) would be available to leave Asia within the next three years (or, before the start of the 2021 season) and who (b) have expressed interest in coming to the MLB or have, at least, not publicly refuted such a thing. Some players, like top NPB shortstop Hayato Sakamoto of the Yomiuri Giants (dubbed as the “Derek Jeter of Japan”), prefer to stay in Japan. Sakamoto has been ML scouts’ favorite for a while, but it’s possible that he just wants to stay and remain a star of Japan’s most popular team.

Yusei Kikuchi, LHP, Saitama Seibu Lions

Kikuchi is all but guaranteed to appear in the States by 2019. Not only does he features an arsenal that would easily make him a starter in the majors, but also he has strongly expressed desire to come over to the US. Back in 2009, as a top high-school pitching prospect for Hanamashi Higashi (the same high school attended by Shohei Ohtani attended), Kikuchi attracted much MLB interest. For instance, the Rangers recruited Derek Holland to try to persuade Kikuchi to sign with Texas. However, Kikuchi decided to stay in Japan and was drafted in first round by the Seibu Lions, for whom he has pitched ever since.

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