The Korean Baseball Organization’s May 5 Opening Day is mere days away, and with 10 teams, the league has a lot of players to learn in a short time if you want to know who you’re watching (assuming a broadcast deal gets worked out).
Luckily, knowledge of Major League Baseball will help out here. Each team is permitted two foreign-born pitchers and one foreign-born batter, and those players are almost always former prospects or fringe big leaguers. If you want to know who to watch in the KBO, players whose names you recognize from bullpen shuttles or part-time fourth outfielder roles are a good way to get started. Today and tomorrow, I’ll profile the foreign-born players on each KBO team. That’s a lot of players, so let’s get right to it, starting alphabetically and working our way through the teams.
Chris Flexen: You might know Flexen as an up-and-down Mets reliever. Over parts of three seasons, he pitched 68 not-so-great innings for the Queens club, racking up an 8.07 ERA and 6.92 FIP. That doesn’t sound inspiring, but it’s a tiny sample, and he was at times quite good in the minors. In 2017, he threw 60 innings between Hi-A and Double-A and was tremendous.
When his game was slow to translate to the majors, he revamped his fastball, and things didn’t work out. He added nearly 2 mph, but it came at the cost of sacrificing his two-seamer and losing his grasp of the strike zone; he got only 48.1% of his fastballs over the plate in 2019, which led to an 18.6% walk rate. He’ll look to get back to what worked for him in the minors, a mix of sinkers and an upper-80s slider, with the Bears.
Raúl Alcántara: Alcántara, like Flexen, had a brief cup of coffee in the majors before heading to Korea. Unlike Flexen, he went last year — he signed a one year deal with the KT Wiz. He was essentially a league average pitcher in 2019, and he did it by flooding the zone and daring pitchers to hit it. His 3.8% walk rate and 13.8% strikeout rate (the league averages are around 8% and 17% respectively) should tell you everything you need to know — he’s basically the KBO’s Kyle Hendricks. With a mid-90s fastball and a cutter/changeup combo to bracket it, he showed enough that the Bears signed him this offseason.
Jose Miguel Fernandez: Fernandez never quite fit in the big leagues; the Dodgers released him only a year after signing him out of Cuba, the Angels gave him a quick look in the majors, and that was essentially it. The no-power, iffy-glove first baseman is simply not an archetype MLB teams believe in anymore.
The Bears could use that, though. In 2019, Fernandez hit .344/.409/.483 while striking out only 8.5% of the time. A .362 BABIP might seem high, but he’s a big-league caliber bat spraying laser beams all over the place; it’s not hard to believe he earned it. His throwback game is a blast to watch, and he’ll be one of my personal favorite players to check out this year.
Warwick Saupold: Cup of coffee in the majors, negative career WAR — Saupold is an older Raúl Alcántara. He also throws a fastball and a cutter, though he has a nice curveball as well. He got a lot of value out of suppressing home runs in 2019, as well as forcing batters to beat him — his 6.6% walk rate and 16.7% walk rate screamed “come and get it.” He paired a 3.51 ERA with solid peripherals, and his games should be fun to watch, with plenty of ball-in-play action.
Chad Bell: Bell, who seems to love playing in Korea, went from being a borderline-prospect reliever in the US to a reliable starter for the Eagles. He had an almost exactly identical ERA to Saupold, but did it while being more homer-prone. He abandoned his slider in the second half of the season, but he’s got a nifty curveball to use as an out pitch in its place. One bummer: Bell felt elbow pain after a throwing session and will miss time recovering, per Dan Kurtz of MyKBO.
Jared Hoying: Hoying is a KBO veteran; this will be his third straight year with Hanwha. Prior to that, he lived my personal childhood dream by hitting a major league home run — exactly one home run, with the Rangers in 2017. Aside from that, his stateside career was a series of mediocre batting lines in Texas — he played for Triple-A Round Rock for five straight years without ever falling on his face or setting the world on fire.
Hoying’s calling card is probably his defense — he played center for much of his time in the minors — and while his OBP won’t make anyone forget Jose Miguel Fernandez, he has enough pop (18 homers and 26 doubles in 525 PA) and enough speed (23 stolen bases) to profile as a kind of poor man’s Carl Crawford. Defense, steals, and pop; between Hoying and Saupold, the Eagles offer everything the action-junkie fan bemoaning the three-true-outcome nature of MLB could ask for.
Aaron Brooks: Last September, Brooks threw seven innings of one-hit ball against a major league baseball team. Now admittedly, that team was the Mariners, and it was a September lineup at that, but still! He looks like quite the acquisition for the Tigers, who finished 62-80 last year and could use the help.
Brooks almost certainly had major league offers this offseason; given the state of major league bullpens, someone would take a chance on the low-90’s sinker and cromulent secondaries. But Matt Williams, who coached Brooks in the Oakland system, is now the Tigers’ manager, and the combination of familiarity and $679,000 were too much to resist.
Brooks seems like he’ll fit in well in the contact-oriented KBO; he never walks anyone and keeps the ball on the ground. And again, Brooks threw seven innings of one-hit baseball in the major leagues less than a year ago. He was worth positive WAR whether you care about FIP or ERA. He hasn’t thrown a pitch in the regular season in Korea yet, but he looks like he could be a star.
Drew Gagnon: See Chris Flexen.
Okay, fine, that’s not fair. Like Flexen, Gagnon was up and down for the Mets last year, and the two have combined for an identical -1.1 career WAR. Gagnon boasts better control and a changeup he threw nearly a third of the time in the big leagues. That pitch was an honest-to-god plus pitch; it generated a spicy 42.9% whiff rate in his two seasons in New York.
The change in run environment should serve Gagnon well; he gave up a stupefying 27.5% home run per fly ball rate in 2019, 11 dingers in all. The newly de-juiced KBO baseball should fit his style much better; if the fastballs aren’t leaving the yard, the changeup will work nicely.
Preston Tucker: Tucker is perhaps best known for being Kyle Tucker’s older brother. But when Jeremy Hazelbaker didn’t work out for the Tigers last year, they signed Tucker out of the White Sox system. He delivered a solid performance — a .311/.382/.479 slash line and nearly as many walks as strikeouts.
Will he repeat the performance in 2020? The Tigers certainly think so — they signed him to a $850,000 contract a year after giving him $270,000. That contract was probably necessary to keep him from considering stateside offers — he was already knocking on the door of the majors in 2019, and a rebuilding team wouldn’t need much prodding to see whether his newly improved batting eye would carry over to America. Instead, however, he’s playing baseball while his former teammates shelter in place. Good deal!
William Cuevas: By now, you know the archetype. Cuevas spent parts of three seasons on the Red Sox and Tigers. He was right on the cusp of major league viability. But he might have been on the wrong side of the cusp; without any real out pitch, he nibbled too much, and that led to huge walk rates that made the whole package not work.
With the Wiz last year, he got his walk rates somewhat under control, though his 8.3% mark was still hardly stellar. He’s very much a fly ball pitcher, which led to so-so home run rates, but even with the dingers, he posted a 3.62 ERA with decent peripherals. If he can keep a few more of those fly balls in the yard this year, he’ll be solidly above average — and even if he doesn’t, his floor is an innings eater with completely acceptable performance.
Odrisamer Despaigne: Despaigne spent 2014-2019 bouncing around the majors, seemingly playing for a new team every year. He was never good enough to stick, but never bad enough that you couldn’t dream on his never-ending arsenal of fringe-average pitches. Picture Yu Darvish, with the volume turned down to about 75%.
Despaigne always felt just on the cusp of figuring things out, but of course, he never did: he struck out only 14% of major league batters while walking 8.2%. He might have thrown the kitchen sink, but batters mostly hit the sink right back at him — particularly in the last two years, when he allowed an eye-popping 33% line drive rate.
Will his bag of tricks fare better in the contact-happy KBO? I’m honestly at a loss. But whatever happens, it’ll be a lot of fun; a Despaigne start is a unique experience — in 2018, for example, he struck out Alex Bregman and Bryce Harper while allowing homers to Tony Wolters and Franklin Barreto. I’m excited to see the KBO translation of that extreme spread of outcomes.
Mel Rojas Jr.: It’s difficult to project how players will fare when moving to the KBO. Take Rojas, for example: he never hit enough to be exciting as a prospect, topping out at Triple-A over four seasons split between the Braves and Pirates. Then he went to the Wiz and was instantly one of the best power hitters in Korea.
In his first season on the peninsula, he hit .301/.351/.560, then followed it up with a .305/.388/.590 sophomore effort. The league de-juiced the baseball after 2018 — and he still hit .322/.381/.530 in 2019 with 24 homers. He strikes out a lot for the KBO — 21.1% — but he makes up for it in spades with his prodigious power and a sky-high BABIP (over .330 each year).
All that production has catapulted Rojas to the top of the KBO. He won a Golden Glove, which in the KBO is granted to the best overall player at each position, in 2019. The Wiz signed him to a one year, $1.3 million deal this past winter, with an additional $200,000 in incentives. The recent expansion team finally hit .500 last year, and Rojas is a key part of that.
Adrian Sampson: Sampson was acceptable but unspectacular for Texas in 2019, putting in 125.1 innings of time in one of the best hitter’s parks in baseball in the best hitting year ever. His signing with the Giants was a coup for 2019’s last-place team.
His game seems well-suited to the KBO. In Texas, his fly ball tendencies got him into trouble; let the ball get into the air on a hot Arlington summer night, and it might never come down. But he throws strikes, sits in the low 90s with his fastball, and throws a two-plane slider in the mid 80s that plays off the fastball and generates plenty of whiffs. Tone down the ball and the competition, and he might overpower opposing hitters.
Alas, you won’t be able to tune into the KBO next week and see Sampson. He’s traveling back to Seattle to be with his ailing father, and he’ll spend a mandatory two weeks in quarantine when he returns. It’s a tough stroke of luck for Sampson, as well as for the Giants, but it’s great to see the team give him leave to head home, and he’ll hopefully be back to anchor the rotation before long.
Dan Straily: Well, maybe help anchor the rotation. Straily is a different archetype than most pitchers who head to the KBO; an established major leaguer with nearly 1,000 innings across eight big league seasons. He did put up a shocking 9.82 ERA and 9.34 FIP last year — yikes! — but he’s also been traded for Luis Castillo and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
How will he fare on the Giants? I have no clue. It’s not exactly breaking news that his game didn’t work in the majors in 2019, but the lower level of competition might suit him well; Straily lived in the zone when he was at his best, challenging hitters with his four-seamer and finishing them with his changeup. He fled the zone as batters started to catch up with the fastball, and the juggling act fell apart.
If he can avoid a severe case of the dingers while living at the top of the zone, he could put up eye-popping numbers — he’s one of the few pitchers in the KBO with a history of putting big leaguers away with aplomb. Of course, he could also be washed up — again, he had a 9.82 ERA last year and got released outright by the Marlins. It’s a gamble by the Giants, but it should be a fun gamble to watch.
Dixon Machado: Machado might be the KBO’s answer to Andrelton Simmons. He was a spectacular fielder with a cannon arm in the states, and with fewer walks, strikeouts, and home runs, he’ll get a steady workout of grounders to demonstrate his skills.
Of course, there’s a reason Machado is plying his trade in Korea instead of relaxing in a major league clubhouse: despite a few promising minor league seasons, he’s never hit in the majors. Pitchers simply knocked the bat out of his hands: his .068 ISO across 505 plate appearances was the third-worst in the majors across that time frame, ahead of only late-career Ichiro and Kelby Tomlinson.
With that kind of game, you need to completely avoid strikeouts and draw a few walks to be playable, and Machado couldn’t accomplish either of those. He showed flashes of doing that in 2019 in Triple-A Iowa for the Cubs — a .261/.371/.480 slash line with 13.7% walks was positively Bondsian compared to his earlier career.
If that was the real Dixon Machado — a statline that works out to a 107 wRC+ even with the lively baseball invading Triple-A — then the Giants just signed a superstar, a middle-of-the-order bat who plays a plus shortstop. If he’s more 2018 Machado — .224/.321/.279 in 171 plate appearances in Toledo — well, the glove is still pretty spectacular. The Giants took a lot of shots with their offseason signings, and this is my favorite of them.