BUSAN, South Korea – The KBO's second season is about to start. The bottom feeders are off playing golf and kissing their girlfriends goodbye as they head off to chip away at their military service. The four best teams are all that's left and we'll be down to three by next week.
Lotte will battle the Doosan Bears in a five game series this week. These two teams are actually fairly different in their approaches. Doosan has a more patient approach at the plate and a less patient approach when it comes to managing the pitching staff. Lotte has more of a free-swinging style at the plate while relying on their starting pitchers out of necessity.
Lotte is simply better in the infield than Doosan. The only position where Doosan has a clear edge over Lotte is at shortstop. Doosan's Son Si-hyeon is probably the best shortstop in the league. That's not really a compliment, but it instead speaks to the lack of quality at short in the KBO. Son is consistent at the plate and reasonably reliable in the field. He posted a .273/.350/.376 slash line with 51 runs and 62 driven in.
Shortstop has been a difficult position for Lotte to fill in 2010. The Giants lost all-field/no-hit Park Ki-hyuk to injury early in the season and he's been unable to return. Between Hwang Jae-gyun's struggles at the plate and Moon Gyu-hyeon's…Moon Gyu-hyeon-ness, Lotte fans haven't seen much from shortstop this year.
I also have to give the edge to Doosan at first base, but I think it depends on which infield configuration the Giants go with. If it's Lee Dae-ho at first, clearly, the Giants have the advantage. The more likely scenario is that Lotte puts Kim Ju-chan and his 65 steals at first base, but I'd rather have the Doosan Bears' first baseman Choi Joon-seok and his thump than Kim's speed on the basepaths.
Choi Joon-seok didn't post the gaudy homer totals that Lee had, but he's shown an ability to hit for power and get on base. Choi posted a slash line of .321/.397/.542 with 22 homers and 82 runs driven in. The biggest advantage for Kim is his versatility. If Royster needs to use a pinch hitter or runner late in the game, Kim can slide into the outfield or most other infield positions. Choi is strictly a first base/DH-type.
I'll take Kang Min-ho's leadership and clutch hitting behind the plate over Doosan rookie Yang Eui-ji and his 20 homers and .819 OPS. Kang finished behind only Lee Dae-ho and Hong Seong-heun for the team lead in OPS with a .901 mark. He also enjoyed career highs in batting average, homers and runs scored.
I'd also rather have Lotte's Cho Seong-hwan at second and Lee Dae-ho at third than Doosan's platoons at both positions. Doosan has mainly featured Oh Jae-won at second, but they also have former Korean national team member Goh Yeong-min as a backup. Goh fell into manager Kim Kyung-moon's doghouse last year due to a lack of production, striking out a TON and some fairly mediocre defense.
Doosan has been playing slugger Kim Dong-ju more at DH than third base. At age 34, Kim's best days in the field are behind him, but he can still rake. Kim has spent all 13 KBO seasons with the Doosan/OB Bears. He's posted double-digit homers every season and carries a lifetime batting average of .313. He "only" posted a slash line of .296/.405/.513 this year in 102 games. He may be slowing down a little, but he is still a force in the heart of the Bears' lineup. If Doosan chooses to put Oh at third and slugger Kim Dong-ju at DH, they'll likely use Goh at second.
In the outfield, the advantage switches to Doosan. Left fielder Kim Hyeon-su, center fielder Lee Jong-wook and right fielder Lee Seong-yeol make up the best outfield in the KBO. They can all run. They can all hit. They can all catch and throw.
Kim Hyeon-su was an MVP candidate before the season started. He ended with a .305/.406/.510 slash line with 21 homers and 80 RBIs in 119 games. That's Kim Hyeon-su's version of a "down year."
Lee Jong-wook is a prototypical leadoff hitter. Lee doesn't have much power, but he can get on base and score runs. Right fielder Lee Seong-yeol finally got an opportunity to earn a full time job and set career highs in just about every offensive category.
Lotte will likely go with Son Ah-seop in left, Jeon Joon-woo in center and Karim Garcia in right. Kim Ju-chan could see some time in center, but I think Royster is going to go with Jeon Joon-woo and his hot bat. Both Son and Jeon are big reasons why Lotte is in the playoffs. These two younger players had an opportunity to earn regular at bats and they both stepped up to deliver big hits for Lotte down the stretch. I wouldn't be surprised if they continued their success in the postseason.
The more I look at the pitching staffs, the more I like Lotte's rotation compared to Doosan's. Lotte is probably going to go with Song Seung-joon in Game 1 and follow him with Ryan Sadowski and Jang Won-joon. Lee Jae-gon would likely pitch the fourth game. I like that set up a lot more than Doosan's.
The Bears will likely start with Kim Sun-woo in Game 1 and follow him with Kelvin Jiminez, Lim Tae-hoon and Les Walrond. Starters really don't matter for Doosan in the playoffs because manager Kim Kyung-moon has one of the fastest hooks in the KBO. He has no problem burning through his bullpen if it means avoiding a big inning. If any Doosan starter throws more than five innings, I'll be impressed. The goal appears to be to bore the opposition to sleep with constant mound visits and pitching changes. It works more on fans than it does on the opposition.
Doosan's bullpen is a huge advantage over Lotte's. The Lotte bullpen has been a source of pain and trouble all season. How do you have a playoff team without a clear option for the ninth inning?
Lim Kyeong-wan is the de facto closer and I know Jerry Royster has faith in him to get a ground ball if he needs one, but I can't see counting on him for more than that. Not a single Lotte reliever reached double digits in saves or holds.
Doosan has a much more "traditional" bullpen. Closer Lee Yong-chan is one of the best in the KBO and both Goh Chang-seong and Jeong Jae-hoon recorded over twenty holds this year. Also watch out for pitcher Lee Hyeon-seung. Lee was acquired in a shady trade with Nexen during the off season. Lee was a bust as a starting pitcher, but he's found success out of the bullpen over the last few months.
Manager Kim is also known to use starting pitchers for a batter or two. Anyone could be used at any time if he sees fit. It's maddening to watch and it guarantees that each of these games is going to take four hours plus to complete.
As for a prediction, I like Lotte in five. I think between their offensive might and their solid starting pitching, they should be able to take the series. The x-factor here is the Lotte defense. Avoid the back-breaking errors that have plagued the Giants and they should take the series.
This Doosan team is probably the weakest that Doosan has sent to the playoffs in the last five years. This team doesn't scare me nearly as much as they used to. They weakened a shut-down bullpen by converting Lim Tae-hoon into a really mediocre starter and dealing Geum Min-cheol. They don't have nearly as many reliable options as they used to. If Lotte can gas their bullpen in the first two games, they would have an advantage for the rest of the series.
There's also the added motivation of Jerry Royster's contract. I think winning a playoff series should go a long way to getting Jerry the contract extension I'm sure he'd like. It's clear that the Giants like playing for him and that could prove to be good motivation to beat the Bears.
The action starts on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Korean time. Lotte! Doosan! Lee Dae-ho! Kim Hyeon-su! Catch KBO fever on KBS!
You can check out Matthew's popular blog, True Stories of Korean Baseball, where he follows the entire KBO throughout the week.