Many people probably don’t even know about this tournament, but this March baseball’s only true best-on-best international competition begins in the form of the World Baseball Classic (WBC). This will be the 3rd incarnation of the tournament, which is held every 3 years and has seen Japan emerge victorious in both in 2006 and 2009 . Korea has been very competitive finishing 2nd in 2006 an intense 10 inning final game and 3rd in 2009, after again losing to Japan. In fact, the Koreans have had the best win loss record in the tournament going 12-4 with all 4 losses coming to the Japanese, while team Japan has compiled a 12-5 record with 4 losses to the Koreans! Rivalry much?
So with this year’s tournament deciding the fate of Dokdo the Korea/Japan rivalry will be fiercer than ever! (just kidding, calm down) This post will give you a guide of some players to watch for team Korea, some players to hate on team Japan, useful scheduling information and anything else notable I come across.
Today we are talking some of the most important players in the KBO and consequently on Team Korea this year. There are other good players, but these guys are the big stars.
Lee Dae Ho #25 1B/3B/DH
Nickname: Big Boy
With Choo Shin-soo opting to attend spring training with the Cincinati Reds instead of play in the WBC, Lee Dae-ho is the leader of the Korean team this year. For those unfamiliar with Lee Dae-ho let’s start with the fact that he is enormous. Listed at 6′ 4″, 286 pounds Lee has been called “Big Boy” and is the kind of player that you would expect with that sort of build, a power hitting first baseman. Lee Dae-ho has put together an incredible career with approximately a million accolades in the KBO including multiple homerun titles (2), batting titles (3), and a ridiculous 2010 MVP Season in which he not only won the baseball triple crown for the 2nd time in his career but won the “septuple crown” leading the league in home runs, RBI, and batting average, as well as, runs scored, on-base and slugging percentages, and hits. That year he also broke the world professional baseball record for most consecutive games with a homerun, going on a 9 game tear and breaking a record of 8 shared by Ken Griffey Jr. (1993) Don Mattingly (1987) and Dale Long (1956). After another dominant season in 2011 Lee decided it was time for a new challenge and headed to Japan, where in his first season as a member of the Orix Buffaloes he lead the league in RBI and won the homerun derby. So yea… he’s pretty good.
Off the field, Lee’s story makes his incredible accomplishments even more impressive. After his father died when he was 3, Lee’s mother lovingly remarried and gave him and his brother up to his grandmother, an old lady who sold vegetables and soybean paste at a market in Busan. Seeing his difficult family situation, his uncles introduced him to baseball as fun escape from a relatively dark childhood.
In elementary school he became friends with future Major League allstar Choo Shin-soo(!) and together they played baseball and were recruited into Korea’s national youth baseball team. They won the 2000 World Youth Championships with Lee serving as pitcher (he could throw in the 90’s!) and cleanup hitter, finishing with a .500 batting average and 3 home runs.
In 2000, just before his entry into the KBO, his grandmother died. This was obviously a huge blow and while trying to focus on baseball injuries to his shoulder and knees. Lee credits his girlfriend and future wife for getting him through these times and allowing him to develop into one of the great sluggers in Korean history.
Adversity, grandma, Choo and romance what a story!
Lee Seung Yeop #36 1B/DH
Nicknames: The Lion King, Mr. “Seung” (in Japan)
While Lee Dae-ho is probably the best Korean player in the tournament at this point in his career, the most decorated, and perhaps greatest, Korean league hitter of all time is Lee Seung Yeop. After 7 years in the more advanced NPB in Japan, Lee Seung Yeop returned to the Samsung Lions last year, a team led from 1995-2003 earning the moniker “The Lion King”. Lee’s KBO resume is staggering and includes 5 MVP awards, 2 gold gloves, 3 Korean Series titles, 1 Korean series MVP. Lee also holds the Korean record for homeruns in a single season with 56 in 2003 and is a mere 6 homeruns from the record of 351 held by former Lion Yang Jun-hyuk. At 36 years old Lee proved he was still a top tier hitter in the KBO, smashing 21 homers and hitting .308.
Twice in the past Lee Seung Yeop has been reportedly close to joining Major League teams including an alleged negotiation with the LA Dodgers in 2007 where he demanded to have a guaranteed starting spot, which obviously didn’t work out. More on that negotiation and Lee’s notoriously attractive wife can be found here: http://www.rjkoehler.com/2006/04/05/lee-seung-yeop-and-sports-writing-at-its-finest/ and more directly here http://image.search.naver.com/search.naver?where=image&query=%uC774%uC1A1%uC815.
In addition to his accolade-filled career in the professional leagues of Asia, Lee was also instrumental in Korea’s greatest international baseball achievement, the 2008 baseball gold medal in Beijing. When I first got to Korea in 2009, replays of the Beijing baseball tournament were popular viewing on Korean sports stations. This continued into 2010, and 2011…. It’s just great to watch any time! And Lee Seung Yeop had a lot to do with the happy ending. A thumb injury rendered him ineffective in the round-robin portion of the tournament, but Lee stepped up in the medal round. First, he hit a go-ahead 2-run home run to oust Japan in the semi-final, and followed that up a 2-run bomb against Cuba in the final, as Korea squeaked out a 3-2 victory, and secured exemptions from the military for all. Nice-uh!
Next month Korea will look for the Lion King to bring pride to the nation once more… heh, see what I did there?
Kim Tae-kyun #52 1B/DH
Nickname: The Billwonaire (I just made it up)
In 2011 Kim Taekyun announced he was returning from the Japanese league to come back and play in Korea for his original team the Hanhwa Eagles. While the average annual salary in the KBO in 2012 was about 94.4 million won ($86,885 USD) Kim’s deal to return to his homeland paid him 1.5 Billion won ($1.38 million USD). Unlike other stars who have returned to Korea, Kim came back in his prime at 30 years old in 2012. The stocky first baseman didn’t disappoint, hitting .364 with 16 homers and 81 walks compared to 69 strikeouts. Kim ran away with the batting title, as well as the On Base Percentage crown – if such a crown were to exist.
In terms of international experience Kim was a vital member of the 2009 Korean WBC team as he was named to the tournament all-star team at first base tying for the most homeruns (3), RBI (11) and runs (9). This year the Korean team’s lineup will once again rely heavily on the bat of the KBO’s biggest earner of all time.
Kim Hyunsoo #50 OF
Nickname: Machine Hyun-Soo 기계현수
The hitting machine, known as Kim Hyun-soo, is a returning member of the 2009 WBC team when he was named to the tournament all-star team, hitting .393 with 7 walks. Kim followed up that success in the 2009 KBO regular season when he finished runner up to the Wyvern’s Kim Kwang-Hyun for the MVP award. In 2009 Hyun-Soo exploded offensively, batting .357 and smacking 23 home runs. He defended his hit title with 172, and was runner-up in RBI (104) and triples (6) while placing third in batting average, runs (97), doubles (31), on-base percentage (.448) and slugging percentage (.589 ). As well as being an excellent contact hitter with a decent amount of pop in his bat, Hyun-soo is an above average outfielder usually manning left field for the Doosan Bears. He’s a well-rounded baseball player, who plays the game the right way!! (Tip: Awful , useless baseball clichés like that help lazy baseball writers fill space and end paragraphs)
With these 2 SK Wyverns, I will give a little WBC-specific info then link to their already completed player profiles. So totally check those out!
Choi Jeong #14, 3B
Nicknames: Spider-man, Strong Boy
Choi Jeong was one of the best offensive players in the KBO last year finishing among the league leaders in home runs. But with Lee Dae-ho, Lee Seung-Yeop, and Kim Tae-Kyun all guys who are defensively limited and can only play 1b/3b/DH it will be Choi Jeong’s above average defense that ensures him playing time at the WBC this year… Click here for SK Wyvern player profile of Korean baseball’s “Spider-man”.
Jeong Keun-woo #8 2B
Jeong Keun-woo is another national team veteran having played in WBCs, Olympic games, and other various tournaments around the world. But the last WBC left a particularily bitter taste in Keun-woo’s mouth as he struck out against current Japanese Major Leaguer Yu Darvish to end Korea’s tournament.
“I don’t have fond memories of 2009…This time I want to end it on a better note and plant our national flag on the mound when we clinch the championship.”
He means business and, according to the WBC brass, Jeong will hit lead-off for the team.
Yoon Suk-Min #28
Starting Pitcher, Right Handed
Nickname: his name’s funny enough
With SK’s Kim Kwang-Hyun shockingly sidelined with a shoulder injury (just kidding, he’s always hurt) and former Hanhwa star Ryu Hyun-Jin too focused on his new Hollywood life with the L.A. Dodgers, Yun Seok-Min becomes the ace of the Korean pitching staff at the WBC.
Yoon started as a reliever but over the years it’s become apparent that an arm like his is wasted in the bullpen. He throws 90-92 mph, but can reach back for 96 mph in a big situation. The 26 year old right hander also features a change-up, an occasional curveball, and a hard-breaking, mid-80s slider which can be used like a cutter against lefties.
Yoon was the 2011 KBO MVP winning the coveted triple crown of pitching. The now 26 year old right hander led the league with 17 wins, a 2.45 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 172 innings for the Kia Tigers. He was the first Korean pitcher to accomplish the feat, while also leading the league in winning percentage, since 1991. It should be noted that pitcher wins are a silly stat, which is very team reliant and shouldn’t be used as way to measure individuals… but whatever TRIPLE CROWN!
Yoon is going to be relied on for some of Korea’s toughest opponents and he has experience with that. In the 2009 WBC, he started the semi-final game against the ridiculously star-studded Venezuela. Yoon contained the fearsome, socialist oil powered, Venezuelans to 2 runs over 6 innings as Korea rolled to a 10-2 victory.
“If I can pitch the way I am capable of pitching, I am confident I can beat anyone,” Yoon said, when asked about this year’s tournament “Anyone can beat anyone in baseball, so it’s important to stay in the present and focus on one game at a time without getting ahead of myself too much.”
Hopefully he can keep that focus and lead Korea to gold!…err.. I guess I’m getting ahead of myself too much.
So these are the players I have picked as most essential to know for any international Korean baseball tournament. Watch a WBC game or 2 and see these guys in action as they attempt to win gold and exact revenge on the Japanese team who they’ve developed such an emotional rivalry with.
Don’t know the schedule?? Click Here!