As baseball fans in the U.S. continue to wait for MLB to get its act together and agree on plans for a 2020 season, the Korea Baseball Organization has been playing since early May — with results that have been plenty entertaining and even potentially record-setting.
The team at the center of all the early season headlines has been the NC Dinos of Changwon, South Korea, who have raced out to 26 wins in their first 35 games. How good is that? In a standard (so, not 2020) 162-game MLB season, that would be a scorching 120-win pace. The Dinos’ current .743 winning percentage is better than any team ever had in a full KBO League season, and their +2.37 runs-per-game differential is also tracking to be the best in KBO history:
|Best Winning Percentage|
|Best RPG Differential|
Granted, this is a sample of just 35 games we’re talking about (out of a 144-game slate). In MLB last season, eight different teams had a 35-game stretch with at least 26 wins; most were the usual suspects — the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves — but the other three were the Oakland A’s (who lost the American League’s wild-card game) and the New York Mets and Cleveland Indians (neither of whom even made the playoffs at all). Baseball is a weird sport. But even if we were to adjust the Dinos’ winning percentage for the smaller sample by adding 50 games of .500 ball to their record,1 NC would still be tied for the 14th-best season in KBO history, with a chance to move up more if they keep winning.
What’s especially impressive has been the thoroughness with which the Dinos have dominated the early part of the 2020 season. In addition to having the best record and run differential, they also have scored the most runs per game and allowed the second-fewest runs per game in the league so far (trailing only the LG Twins). It’s rare for a team as dominant as this to not end up winning the KBO title — and that shows up in the championship odds, the most recent of which have the Dinos (+250) as the favorites over the Doosan Bears (+500) and the Kiwoom Heroes (+600), last year’s Korean Series contestants.
Why are the Dinos so great? Well, it helps to have historic performances on both the hitting and pitching sides. For the former, NC has three players with an on-base plus slugging in the quadruple digits and four more with at least a .900 OPS.2 (The league average OPS is currently .762, which is roughly the same as MLB’s average last season.) The team’s total-bases leader is outfielder Na Sung-bum, who’s hitting .328 with a 1.061 OPS and 10 homers in the 31 games for which we have data. But it’s first baseman Kang Jin-sung who is really putting on a show, with numbers you’d normally only see in a video game:
- .437 batting average (1st in KBO)
- .495 on-base percentage (1st)
- .770 slugging percentage (1st)
- 1.265 OPS (1st)
In all of KBO history, only one qualified player3 — Eric Thames, who tore up the KBO with 47 homers and a 1.288 OPS in 2015 before returning to MLB — ever had a higher single-season OPS than Kang has now, and Kang’s .437 batting average would easily blow away the previous record, held by Baek In-chun (who hit .412 in 1982).
(What’s equally incredible is that Kang had no previous history of anything like this before 2020. He had a .925 OPS in 2017, but it was in only 28 games. And in the last two seasons, his OPS had been a well-below-average .611 as a part-time player. Now he is putting up numbers that would make Mike Trout proud.)
Meanwhile, on the pitching side, the Dinos boast three starters with earned run averages under 2.70 (league average is 4.80), plus the league’s saves leader in Won Jong-hyeon (3.75 ERA). And just like Kang, pitcher Koo Chang-mo is having a record-chasing season of his own. In 48 innings so far, Koo has 52 strikeouts and only 11 walks to go along with a microscopic 0.69 WHIP. His 0.75 ERA currently ranks third-best ever among hurlers with at least 40 innings pitched in a season, trailing only Sun Dong-yeol in 1995 (0.49) and Yu Dong-hun in 2009 (0.53).
Between Koo, Kang and a ton of other impressive performances — former Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Aaron Altherr has a blistering .971 OPS — the NC Dinos are having a year for the ages in the middle of this strange 2020 baseball season. It’s fair to ask: Will they regress to the mean eventually? (The Dinos were OK, but not great, at 73-69 last year.) Maybe so. There’s a lot of season left to play, and no team can sustain a pace this hot forever. In fact, the Dinos have already cooled down slightly, with a shockingly mortal 2-3 record over their last five games.
But over the first month of the season, the Dinos have mostly thrilled KBO fans and provided baseball-starved Americans with plenty of highlights at a time when we’ve otherwise worn out all of our classic-game playlists.
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