At least until May 5, when the Korea Baseball Organization plans to hold its Opening Day, the Chinese Professional Baseball League isn’t just the only game in town, it’s the only pro sports league in the world that’s up and running during the COVID-19 pandemic. The four-team circuit plays in a time zone that’s 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time — currently to empty ballparks due to safety concerns — and while the league has begun streaming English-language broadcasts on Twitter, its official site and its on-demand streaming service are mainly in Mandarin, creating a hurdle even for fans willing to get their baseball fixes over morning coffee or by watching rebroadcasts later in the day.
Enter CPBL Stats (@GOCPBL on Twitter), the Mike Trout of English-language resources devoted to the league, and a must-see for anybody attempting to, well, figure out Who’s Hu in Taiwanese baseball. In assembling the aforementioned piece last week, I found CPBL Stats’ site to be a godsend. Its Quick Guide to the 2020 Season pulls double duty as a season preview and a guide to the league’s recent history. Its English-language rosters, and stats (including advanced metrics like wRC+ ad FIP), and its guide to streaming are all indispensible features. While I was writing about the league, the site’s proprietor, Rob, was most helpful in filling in some gaps in my understanding. Earlier this week, he agreed to an email interview that further enhanced my appreciation of the league and his site, and I hope will do the same for FanGraphs’ readers.
First things first: Rob is a Taiwan native who speaks Mandarin as well as English. He described himself as “just an everyday 9-5 office worker in the marketing industry based outside of Taiwan,” and asked to further limit his disclosure of certain personal details, including his surname. What follows here is a lightly edited transcript of our exchange. I have used the English naming order, placing Chinese surnames last instead of first.
Jay Jaffe: From your “About Us” link, I see that you started this site in 2015, as a side project on Reddit’s CPBL page, with the goal of promoting the league to a non-Mandarin-speaking audience. Can you give us a bit more background about how you got into Taiwanese baseball in the first place?
Rob: I pretty much grew up with baseball, as both of my parents were huge CPBL fans in the 1990s. A lot of my earliest memories are from baseball games with them.
JJ: Before you got into the CPBL, were you a follower of MLB and/or other foreign leagues? How closely do you follow leagues outside of Taiwan now?
Rob: Yes, I watched quite a lot of MLB between 1999 to 2006. I don’t really have a team that I followed religiously, but I watched quite a lot of Dodgers’ games because of Chan Ho Park. I was also quite into the minor leagues. I love tracking all the Taiwanese minor league players, every now and then I would find some free radio stream and listen to the games online (mostly the Las Vegas 51s games).
These days, I don’t really watch MLB that much, maybe about 10 games a year? I pay more attention to the CPBL and occasionally check out the NPB and KBO.
JJ: Do you have a favorite CPBL team, and if so, how did you get into them?
Rob: I stopped watching the CPBL around the late ’90s when the league went through that 15 or so years of never-ending game-fixing scandals. I started to care about the CPBL once again in 2006 when the former Dodgers’ outfielder Chin-Feng Chen returned to Taiwan and joined the La New Bears.
Because of Chen, the La New Bears pretty much became my favorite CPBL team. I followed them when they renamed to the Lamigo Monkeys in 2011. And I guess since Lamigo sold their team to Rakuten last year, this now makes me a Rakuten Monkeys fan.
JJ: Have you been to games in other leagues, and if so, how do the CPBL games compare in terms of their ballparks, their atmosphere, and their customs?
Rob: I have only been to a few NPB and KBO games in the past. Atmosphere-wise, it’s more or less the same, but each league would have its own unique twist to it. In NPB, you can feel this is a league with a lot of history and tradition, and baseball is part of their everyday life. Going to a KBO game is more fun, and you can feel maybe with less baggage, they are more willing to try out new things.
In my opinion, the CPBL experience is somewhere between the NPB and KBO, maybe more leaning towards the KBO. Facility-wise, the CPBL has a lot more to learn from our neighbors. It is not terrible, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
JJ: What’s the league’s best rivalry? How heated do things get?
Rob: The last couple of years, it is definitely the Monkeys versus Brothers. As for how heated? Fans these days are a lot more “civilized” than the fans in the early days of the CPBL. You still get the occasional shouting at the players on the opposite teams, but you hardly ever see fans throwing bottles, eggs and chairs onto the field, or surrounding the opponent’s team bus and smashing it with bricks.
JJ: Wow, that’s quite a set of images! Are there particular stories along those lines that stand out?
Rob: On August 20, 1991, there was an all-out brawl in which Brother Elephants fans attacked Mercuries Tigers players. One of the Tigers’ players allegedly threw a plastic bottle back into the stands and stuck an Elephants fan in the face, triggering the whole violent incident. More than 10 angry Elephants fans jumped the fence and rushed towards the Tigers’ dugout with wooden sticks and groundskeeping equipment. In order to defend themselves, the Tigers players left their dugout holding baseball bats. The situation escalated when the Tigers’ manager, who was acting as a mediator, was pushed by Elephants fans. After seeing that, Tigers fans started to retaliate.
On August 29, 1994, angry Brother Elephants fans tossed hundreds of eggs onto the field to protest a call at home plate from the night before, in which the runner who represented the potential game-tying run was called out by the umpire for not stepping on the home plate. The game was delayed for 30 minutes as the grounds crew cleaned up the mess. Despite the league trying its best to clean up the field, a rotten egg smell still persisted four days after the egging incident.
JJ: Does the league’s size bother you? That is, do you get tired of the small number of teams playing each other over and over? Do you think (or know, based on what they say) that the players get tired of it?
Rob: For sure, it does get a bit stale being a four-team league. But I think this is part of the rebuilding process. You have to remember this is a league that kept pressing the reset button from the mid-90s to 2010 and was pretty much on life support.
The league was in a very awkward situation in 2009 when the number of teams shrunk from six to four. Where do you go from there? Do you disband the whole league and destroy the entire Taiwanese baseball industry along with it? Or do you hold down the fort and hope the public image of the league will get better in the future to attract new expansion teams?
I think the players are just glad there is a professional league in Taiwan where they can make a decent living. From what I’ve seen in the media, players do want more teams in the league, though.
JJ: Obviously, the league has some players who are better than others statistically, and you’ve called attention to some of them on your site. Beyond the stats, are there players with outsized personalities who stand out — guys who are stars for the things they do off the field or the way they relate to the public?
Rob: That would be 38-year-old CTBC Brothers’ veteran Chih-Sheng Lin (also known as Ngayaw Ake in Amis language). He is the type of player that plays well on the field and has this larger than life personality. He is very wild, and at the same time extremely kind to his fans and does a lot of charity work in his spare time. Just last week, he posted on his Facebook fan page that he is willing to help any families that face financial problems due to the pandemic.
[Alas, in the days since this interview was conducted, Lin fractured the index and middle fingers of his left hand in a home plate collision.]
— CPBL STATS (@GOCPBL) April 27, 2020
JJ:Who would you call the league’s best hitter, best fielder, and best pitcher?
Rob: Best Hitter: Right now, it is definitely the Rakuten Monkeys’ Yu-Hsien Chu. He was named the 2019 CPBL MVP after hitting .347/.394/.605 with 30 home runs and a 153 wRC+. Chu started the 2020 season with a hot bat; he is currently hitting .548/.588/1.323 with eight home runs in eight games.
Best Fielder: Without a doubt, the Fubon Guardians’ Che-Hsuan Lin. He had a brief stint with the Boston Red Sox in 2012 and returned to Taiwan in 2015. He is best known for his ridiculous defensive range in center field. When looking at the top 10 best plays of the year, Lin will be on at least three or four of them.
Best Pitcher: Judging by the 2019 performance, it would be Fubon Guardians’ right-hander Henry Sosa. He dominated the first half of the CPBL season with a 1.56 ERA, 0.81 WHIP across 86.2 innings, and 3.01 WAR. Whenever he was on the mound, the bullpen could take a day off. His strong performance in the CPBL eventually earned him a ticket back to the KBO. In June 2019, the SK Wyverns purchased Sosa’s contract from the Guardians. In 2020, the Guardians have reportedly signed him to a full-season deal between $500,000 to $600,000.
JJ: What foreign players stand out to you as the best or most interesting, and why?
Rob: The CTBC Brothers’ left-hander Aríel Miranda, whom the Brothers supposedly signed for at least $600,000, making him the highest-paid foreign player in the CPBL history. What makes it interesting is with the Brothers spending that much money on Miranda, just how well does he have to pitch in order to meet the organization’s expectation? I mean, he can be good, but in the eyes of the team is it good enough to justify that $600,000-plus salary?
JJ: To what extent have you been affected by COVID-19? Are you surprised that Taiwan has been comparatively effective at combatting its spread?
Rob: Life still goes on, just with some minor inconvenience where you have to wear a mask all the time at the supermarket. I’m grateful to all the health workers doing their best to keep us safe.
I am not surprised with it at all, given how aggressive and fast the Taiwanese government at handling this matter. Taiwan was burnt pretty hard during the SARS outbreak back in the day, and this time, we are ready for it. In a way, we are forced to be ready because Taiwan is not a member of the WHO [World Health Organization]. The sad truth is, should the outbreak get out of control, no one will be there to help us.
JJ: What do you think of the games taking place in empty ballparks? Do you think the current situation with no fans threatens the league’s survival, or is it your understanding that fans will be returning at some point this season?
Rob: It is still the same CPBL games, just without fans. Teams are still blasting music at full volume the entire game. The only thing I found funny was seeing the cheerleaders dancing in front of all cardboard cutout fans and robot mannequins.
With a closed-door policy, they are going to lose money for sure, but a lot of people tend to forget all the CPBL teams’ parent companies are very wealthy, all of them are multi-billion conglomerates with hundreds of subsidiaries across all industries. Let’s just use Fubon Financial as an example. In 2018, they made USD $1.6 billion in profit. The cost of running a CPBL team is reportedly between USD $10-$15 million a year. It’s pocket change to them, and they will be fine.
It is really hard to say when the league will let fans into the stadium, hopefully by summer is the best-case scenario? Or maybe the final two months of the season?
JJ: How does it feel to have the eyes of the baseball world focused on the CPBL right now?
Rob: It’s great the CPBL is finally getting all the international attention because I always joked about how the CPBL is this biggest secret baseball league in the world that nobody knows about.
JJ: I know you’ve worked hard to present a great deal of information about the league, its history, and how to access it. Have you gotten a lot of positive response for your work?
Rob: I have a lot of positive feedback so far either via Twitter private messages or by emails. It certainly makes it all worthwhile. I am happy people are finding the blog useful, and the stuff I put together can help out baseball fans around the world.
JJ: You reported last week that the four teams all have English-language commentary via Twitter now. Does that mean they’ll be continuing to stream games over Twitter, as Eleven Sports TW did to start the season?
Rob: Yes, that’s correct. Fubon Guardians and CTBC Brothers will be streaming all their home games with English commentary on their Twitter accounts. Rakuten Monkeys and Uni-Lions will be on the Eleven Sports Taiwan Twitter account.
Rob: I put together a Top 10 from his time here. Here’s the famous English play-by-play call on a Ramirez home run:
That broadcaster is 47-year-old Hsu Chan-Yuan. That “this home run is long gone like an ex-girlfriend…” is actually his home run call in Mandarin during his broadcast, he just translated that into English for this occasion, and it went viral. You can still see that video popping up every now and then on Reddit.
Hsu would incorporate stuff like the ball is leaving like an ex-girlfriend, kite with a broken string, a runaway stallion into his home run call, hit this ball so hard it landed on Mars. He was also known to be super high energy during the broadcast. He even broke down and cried on camera after Team Taiwan lost to Korea in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
JJ: Do you think Ramirez’s return is a good idea, or do you have concerns that it could detract from the attention the league is receiving?
Rob: Manny was a legit foreign player superstar during his time here. From what I remember, he is a very approachable guy, good clubhouse player, good relationship with his teammates. Fans often saw him riding a bicycle around the city during his off day. The Rhinos and Brothers later signed Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras hoping to repeat that same success, but were unable to replicate it in terms of bringing fans to the ballpark.
I think Manny would be good for the league’s exposure, but I highly doubt he will do well at the age of 47. But again, I’m saying this without knowing his condition. The concerns would be can he play 100 to 120 games a season? Can he play well enough to justify taking up one foreign player slot?
[In the CPBL, teams are limited to four foreign-born players, up from three in years past, though only three can be on the 26-man “first team” (its major league team) and only two can be on the field at once.]
There’s almost no place for a foreign positional player in Taiwan, given that it’s a hitters league. Teams mostly go for foreign pitchers. If you are going to be a foreign hitter in Taiwan these days, you will need to hit .300/.400/.600, video game numbers, to make it work. I don’t think even .300/.400/.500 is enough to earn that place due to the lack of pitching depth. Players like Alex Liddi and Roger Bernadina couldn’t keep their place because of that reason.
If any team signs Manny for the 2020 season, it would be as a coach. No way as a player. In 2021, the only team I can see signing Ramirez as player is the Wei Chuan Dragons — being an expansion team, they need stars. And Manny Ramirez can fill that commercial gap for them.
If you want to get an over 45 guy over, Bartolo Colon would be a much better choice. Especially next year with the Wei Chuan Dragons making their CPBL debut. Last year the Dragons hinted they might sign Manny as a player/hitting coach, but nothing came of it. They ended up signing Munenori Kawasaki instead.