We continue our WBC Pool previews with Pool B: Tokyo.
About the Venue: The Tokyo Dome is the largest baseball stadium in the largest metropolitan area in the world and the go-to place for MLB events in Japan. Holding over 45 thousand fans for baseball, the air-supported dome is normally home to the Yomiuri Giants, the most successful team in Japanese baseball. The “Big Egg” has symmetrical dimensions (329 to the corners, 375 to the alleys, 400 to center) and has over the years also played host to concerts, boxing (including Mike Tyson‘s infamous defeat at the hands of Buster Douglas), professional wrestling, NFL exhibition games, and mixed martial arts. It is also the location of Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame.
About The Pool: It’s not quite accurate to call this the “Pacific pool”, since the Czech Republic is there, but it’s pretty close: four of the five teams are on the Pacific Ocean. Japan and Korea are definitely the big names here, but Australia is always scrappy and could pull an upset. China and the Czech Republic will likely prove canon fodder to the larger teams but should still be interesting to watch given how rarely we see their players against top competition.
I’ve been busy the last few days, so this isn’t as thorough as it should be. I haven’t been able to scour the non-English sites for World Baseball Classic news, for example. I’m hoping to have a more full update in the coming days.
Anyway, the main news is that Team USA has its second confirmed player: Trevor Story. The Red Sox infielder was confirmed yesterday. He hasn’t been hitting as well this season, but his overall pedigree and ability to play second or short will make a good asset for the team. He joins Mike Trout as players confirmed for Team USA.
The big news since our last update is that Rodney Linares will manage the Dominican Republic team in the WBC. Currently the third base coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, Linares had a brief minor league career and has been coaching ever since. He managed for several years in the Astros system before joining the Rays.
Speaking of the Dominican Republic, don’t expect to see Albert Pujols suiting up to play for them next year. With him retiring after this year and the Dominican talent pool so deep, he says he wouldn’t want to take the spot of a more worthy player. Instead, he’s planning on getting some traveling and spending time off with his kids. It’s similar to what I noted Miguel Cabrera said a few days ago, although Cabrera didn’t completely close the door to some sort of involvement.
Meanwhile, over in Asia, it’s been announced that Lee Kang-Chul will manage the South Korean squad in the WBC next year. A longtime pitcher in the KBO, he was the league’s strikeout champ back in 1992 and who remains one of the leaders in the league’s history in strikeouts and win. Lee has been the skipper of the KT Wiz since 2019, including a Korean Series title last season.
Finally: As has been noted before here and elsewhere, an effort is being made by Cuban players in North America to be part of the WBC. Major League Baseball again has noted that it isn’t up to the league, though, since rules for international competition put such decisions with national federations.
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.
Dan from MyKBO sent this along to me, although I may have tweeted it earlier this week: what is expected to be the final roster for the Korean national team for the World Baseball Classic, complete with uniform numbers, uniform names (because of the commonality of names like Kim and Lee, initials are common in Korea) and the team they play for usually:
Barring injuries or last-minute dropouts, this will almost certainly be the team that Korea puts out in March. As expected, it is almost entirely made up of KBO players, with two exceptions: Dae-Ho Lee, who now is with the Orix Buffalo of the NPB, and pitcher Won-Jun Jang, who plays for the Police team of the Korean Futures League. The Police team is made up of players who are doing their required two years of national service (all able-bodied Korean males need to do military service), and it’s likely that Jang would likely be in the KBO if he wasn’t doing his service.
I’ll have a more in-depth look at this roster sometime in the future.