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Baseball Is Back In South Korea. What Can MLB Learn From The KBO?

While Major League Baseball is considering creative proposals to get on the field at some point this year, baseball fans do have alternatives to watch now. Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League — currently playing with four teams — started play on April 12, and South Korea’s 10-team KBO League opened on Tuesday looking like this.1 The KBO in particular, which has been around since 1982, could be the focus of a lot of attention in MLB’s absence: ESPN struck a deal to televise six KBO games per week, bat flips and all.

MLB itself might learn something from the leagues that have started playing ball. Players in both South Korea and Taiwan are discovering how to play without fans present, and the KBO has plans to gradually return fans to stadiums. But even the basic structures of the games could give MLB ideas: The KBO has game-length limits with ties allowed, a universal designated hitter and an interesting wild-card format.

South Korea and Taiwan are able to play baseball now because they’ve been among the most successful countries at combating COVID-19. Taiwan has seen only 439 total cases, or 18 per 1 million people in the country, and South Korea has tallied 10,806 total cases, a rate of 211 cases per 1 million people — compared with the U.S. total of over 1.2 million cases and a rate of 3,700 cases per 1 million Americans.2 Daniel Kim, a KBO and MLB analyst who lives in Seoul, says life has mostly returned to normal in South Korea’s largest city. Traffic seems to be back to gridlock levels, and shops are drawing crowds again, with the condition that patrons must pass a temperature screening before entering a business. “The only [other] difference that I see is that everyone is wearing a mask,” Kim told FiveThirtyEight.

While games are being played without fans for now, Kim said the KBO hopes to begin allowing attendance levels up to 20 percent capacity, with incremental increases from there. The league’s stadiums hold between 13,000 and 27,000 fans. While the KBO hopes to play a full 144-game schedule, its season comes with a caveat: It will be paused for at least three weeks if any member of a team tests positive for COVID-19. That could provide a return-to-play road map for MLB.

The major leagues could also borrow from the KBO’s playoff format, particularly if MLB wants to expand its playoffs in this strange season from 10 teams to 14. The KBO’s wild-card round requires the lesser seed to beat the higher seed twice on the road in order to advance, while the better seed needs just one win at home. This, of course, gives the superior-seeded team a much greater chance of advancing. From 2000 to 2016, MLB home teams won 54 percent of the time, so the road team needing to win two away games in a row would theoretically reduce the chance of a wild-card upset from 46 to 21 percent. The format should appeal to those who believe the better-seeded team should enjoy a greater advantage in the opening round, and to those who have issues with a one-game play-in following the marathon of a 162-game season. Chicago Cubs baseball operations president Theo Epstein has proposed expanding the wild-card round to a best-of-three series that begins with a doubleheader as a way to add substance without adding multiple days to the postseason calendar. If MLB used the KBO’s wild-card format, it would extend the round by just one day.

MLB plays a lot of long games

MLB games since 2010 to exceed 12 innings, and total innings played beyond 12 innings, by season

Season Games past 12 innings Innings played past 12
2010 27 51
2011 38 74
2012 31 71
2013 51 129
2014 46 95
2015 39 70
2016 32 66
2017 24 56
2018 39 75
2019 37 94

Innings include top and bottom half of innings, meaning six outs for a complete inning.

Source: Baseball-REFERENCE.Com

Following the KBO rules would also give MLB many more chances at an outcome it rarely sees. Games in the KBO that are tied after 12 innings are declared draws. There hasn’t been a tie in MLB since 2016, but they were common in the majors before the adoption of daylight saving time in 1918. There is an argument that baseball should welcome tie games: MLB plays by far the most games of the “Big Four” North American professional sports league, and ties would save bullpen arms and decrease the wear and tear on position players in overlong games.

Teams and fans also might get a glimpse of future MLB players in the KBO this season. In recent years, the league has produced stars like Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu, and American professional players like Eric Thames have gone to the KBO to reinvent themselves. (Up to three foreign players are allowed on each KBO team.)

Kim believes that Hyun-jong Yang of the Kia Tigers is the best pitcher in the KBO and could potentially pitch in the majors in 2021. NC Dinos catcher Eui-ji Yang might be the best position player in the league, slashing .354/.444/.574 with 20 home runs last season. The Kia Tigers have the most titles in league history with 11, but Kim considers the Doosan Bears, the reigning Korean Series champs, to be the favorite this season.

The KBO can give American fans plenty of quality baseball to watch this summer. But Kim thought the biggest benefit to fans and Major League Baseball itself may be the culture of the KBO — provided that fans are permitted back in ballparks. He cited fan participation, the crowd’s raucous volume and the league’s popular cheerleaders as additions that could boost MLB. Kim said some of the cheerleaders have greater social media followings than players. “I think it’s an area [that] MLB should look at,” Kim said. “[It’s] basically like going to a classical concert at MLB games these days. I think the whole cheering culture is something that should be studied.”

From league culture to playoff structure to a universal DH, perhaps there is much MLB can watch and consider adopting while it waits to reopen.


Why it only took one player with coronavirus to shutter sports

Footnotes

  1. Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, considered Asia’s best league, is still on hold.

  2. While the U.S. has administered more tests per 1 million people, Taiwan and South Korean have been praised for their urgency in mitigation and contact-tracing practices.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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