2020/2021 Tokyo Olympics Baseball Preview: South Korea

Flag of South Korea

The South Koreans are, technically, the reigning Olympic champions, having defeated Cuba in 2008. The South Koreans are managed by Korean baseball lifer Kim Kyung-Moon, who managed that 2008 team. The roster can be found here.

About the Country: Like Japan and China, the history of the Korean Peninsula is long, complicated and often violent. Its current divided state, however, can be traced back to the end of World War II. Korea had been under occupation by Japan for most of the first half of the twentieth century, and when the dust settled from the war the United States and USSR agreed to administer one half of the peninsula until elections could be done in order for the Korean people to choose their own government. Cold War tensions led to this never happening, and soon two rival governments were formed: the Soviet-supported Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the US-supported Republic of Korea in the south. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea, leading to a US-led “police action” to save the peninsula from Communist rule. After the arrival of Chinese “volunteers” in late 1950, the two sides entered a stalemate until a truce was made in 1953. There is still no peace treaty, so the two Koreas remain at war. Since then, South Korea has grown into an economic powerhouse with a democratic government, while North Korea has become a dystopian dictatorship that spends more money on weapons than it does feeding its own people. Needless to say, the “Korea” that takes part in the the Olympic baseball tournament is South Korea.

Baseball History: Baseball came to Korea by way of an American missionary named Philip Loring Gillett, who also introduced basketball to the peninsula. However, baseball didn’t truly become popular until the Japanese annexed the Peninsula in 1910. During the Japanese rule of Korea, baseball became both a rare opportunity for conciliation between the two cultures but also a way for Koreans to challenge the Japanese. After WWII and the Korean War, baseball continued to be popular on an amateur level in South Korea, but it was not until the 1980s that a professional league was formed. The foundation of the Korean Baseball Organization was partially politically motivated, a way to give young men an outlet other than rebellious politics. Although Korean baseball has never truly lost its popularity, it was in a down period before Korea’s showings at the 2006 and 2009 WBCs, as well as the 2008 Olympics, led to skyrocketing attendance. Korean baseball saw a sharp increase in American attention in 2020 when ESPN broadcast games from the KBO to help fill time during the COVID-19 devastated sports schedule.

Olympic History: As mentioned earlier, South Korea is the reigning Olympic champion, defeating Cuba 3-2 in Beijing with a team that included future MLB players like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Seung-Hwan Oh, and Hyun-Soo Kim. Before that, Korea had also won bronze in 2000.

Outside of baseball, South Korea has competed at the Olympics since its independence, although some Korean athletes had participated as part of the Japanese Empire before then. They hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The most success for South Korea in the Olympics have generally come in archery, short-track speed skating, judo, and of course Korea’s national martial art of taekwondo. The most successful athletes in Olympic history for South Korea are sport shooter Jin Jong-Oh and archer Kim Soo-Nyung.

Road to Tokyo: South Korea qualified for the tournament by having the highest finish in the 2019 Premier12 tournament among teams from Asia or Oceania (exempting Japan, who of course already qualified). Korea ended up walking away with silver in that tournament, behind only the already-qualified Japanese.

Notable Names: There are two players with Major League Baseball experience on the South Korean roster. The more notable one is possibly Hyun-Soo Kim, an outfielder who played two season in MLB, including a 2016 campaign with the Orioles that saw him hit .302 with a .801 OPS in 305 at-bats. He was a member of the 2008 Olympic championship team. Third-baseman Jae-Gyun Hwang played 18 games with San Francisco in 2017. Surprisingly, Seung-Hwan Oh and Shin-Soo Choo are not on the roster despite being back in Korea and playing fairly well.

Ones to Watch: As expected, the roster is made up entirely of stars from the Korean Baseball Organization League. The KBO is usually regarded as being somewhere between AA and AAA in talent (compare to how the NPB is usually regarded as being somewhere between AAA and MLB), although it can vary wildly by team.

Starting with pitchers, 21-year-old righty starter Tae-In Won has had a breakout year this season and is 9-0 with a 2.59 ERA in 14 games. Won-Joon Choi has also been an impressive starting pitcher this year in KBO- the righty is 7-0 with a 2.40 ERA. Eui Lee Lee is just 19 but adds a left-handed pitcher to the starting rotation. In the bullpen, Sang-Woo Cho has 14 saves on the year. He’s one of just three pitchers who have returned from the silver-winning Premier12 team, alongside fellow relievers Woo-Suk Go and Woo-Chan Cha.

Among position players to watch, perhaps the biggest to keep an eye on is 1B Baek-Ho Kang. Only 21, he’s “slashing” (batting/on-base/slugging) a hilarious .398/.495/.571 in 309 plate appearances this season. For those of you who are big into OPS, that means he has a 1.066 OPS, which makes him essentially the Shohei Ohtani (hitting version) or Fernando Tatis Jr. of the KBO. By the way, nobody has hit .400 or over in the KBO since 1982.

Other position players to watch include veteran catcher Ul-Ji Yang (19 HRs, .352 BA, reigning Korean Series MVP), 22-year-old outfielder Jung-Hoo Lee (.342/.431/.505, considered a possibility to make a future jump to MLB or NPB), 31-year-old outfielder Hae-Min Park (who leads the KBO in steals with 28) and 22-year-old shortstop Hye-seong Kim (another threat on the basepaths with 27 SB).

Outlook: Korea is a bit of an enigma going into the Olympics. Some of the roster picks are a bit baffling. If you go to Baseball Reference and pull up the KBO leaderboard you’ll find plenty of good Korean players who probably should be on this roster who aren’t, while others on the roster seem like they don’t quite belong. Still, like Japan the Koreans are bringing (mostly) the cream of their domestic crop, and the small field means that they like most teams should have a good shot at a medal, potentially even gold.

You can find all the current Olympic Baseball previews here.

Cool Baseball Link: MyKBO.net (@MyKBO)

I’ve featured Yakyu Baka on the side of the Continuum for awhile, so now is perhaps a good time to link to perhaps it’s Korean equivalent: MyKBO.net.

MyKBO.net, as the name suggests, is about the Korean Baseball Organization and Korean baseball in general. It has links to news and blogs, has the occasional interview with a westerner playing in Korea, and also keeps standings and statistics. In addition, it’s founder, Dan Kurtz, is active on Twitter at @MyKBO and is a pretty good source of news and links on Korean baseball.

So, MyKBO.net has been added to the links part of the Continuum.