With the calendar approaching January, we can look back at a year unlike any other and find one baseball development that may have been forgotten: How foreign leagues became the center of attention while MLB was shut down until mid-summer. 

North American fans were able to learn more about leagues in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, but the KBO managed to take center stage, with games broadcast every day throughout the season in the US. Let’s look back at the KBO season and find some players worthy of some stat-based awards.

The Hard-Hitter Award – Mel Rojas Jr. – KT Wiz

Mel Rojas Jr. had a breakout season in the KBO, winning league MVP honors and nearly capturing a Triple Crown. He narrowly missed out on the batting title while comfortably leading the league in home runs and RBI. In addition to this, he finished only nine hits short of the single-season KBO hits record of 201. Rojas Jr. was also at the top of our hard hit leaderboards all season, and ended up leading the league with a 30.5% hard hit rate, 1.5% ahead of the next closest hitter, Roberto Ramos of the LG Twins (minimum 200 AB). 

Rojas Jr. also limited his soft contact, finishing with the second-lowest soft hit rate of 9.1%, behind only former Minnesota Twin, and current Kiwoom Heroes first baseman Byung-ho Park at 8.5%. Rojas Jr. had a great year, and earned a two-year contract in Japan as a reward for his efforts.

The Contact Minimizer Award – Aaron Brooks – Kia Tigers

Aaron Brooks bounced around the Majors for a few years before signing in Korea last year, and his first year with Kia was very successful. Brooks went 11-4 with a 2.50 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 151 1/3 innings. A big key to his success was his ability to limit hard contact. He had the lowest hard-hit rate allowed by pitchers who had 300 at-bats against, at 11.6%. Brooks allowed a paltry .292 SLG against. He and Dan Straily were only behind Chang-mo Koo’s .278 (also with a minimum of 300 AB against).

If we drop our threshold to 100 at-bats against, the lowest hard-hit rate belongs to Samsung Lions reliever Ji-gwang Choi at 9.4%. Choi only allowed 2 HR in 44 1/3 innings, but his 31 walks helped to inflate his ERA to 4.87 on the season.

The “Crime Fighter” Award – Seung-ho Lee (Kiwoom) and Jae-won Lee (SK)

The Crime Fighter Award goes to the pitcher and catcher who recorded the highest total of Stolen Base Runs Saved, which measures how well they perform at limiting stolen bases, as well as recording pickoffs and caught stealings. The 21-year-old left-handed Seung-ho Lee led all pitchers with 6 Stolen Base Runs Saved, narrowly beating out Hyun-Jong Yang of the Kia Tigers who had 5.

Jae-won Lee of the SK Wyverns led all catchers with 4 Stolen Base Runs Saved, which narrowly beat Bo-geun Jung of the Lotte Giants who had 3. His proficiency at slowing the running game is important as the Wyverns employ starter Jong-hoon Park, whose -5 Stolen Base Runs Saved in 2020 was the lowest total in the league largely due to a slow delivery to the plate.

The “Picking It” Team Award – Kiwoom Heroes

At Sports Info Solutions we are known for our defensive stat, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). If we adjust our basis to KBO average, the Kiwoom Heroes led the way with 57 Runs Saved, 32 runs better than the KT Wiz.

The Heroes’ strength on defense was their infield, leading the KBO in turning grounders into outs at 72.5%, one percentage point above second-place Lotte, and two percentage points above league average. The Heroes were led defensively by Fielding Bible Award winner Hye-sung Kim, who won the award at second base, leading all 2B with 5 DRS despite only playing 441 innings at the position. Kim also won a Fielding Bible Award for his multi-positional versatility, also tallying a respectable -5 DRS in 322 innings at shortstop, and +3 in 292 innings in left field. Pitcher Eric Jokisch also won a Fielding Bible Award, leading all pitchers with +4 DRS

The defensive challenge for the Heroes next year will be how to replace infielders Ha-seong Kim and Addison Russell, and improve on their outfield defense which finished 7th in the league at turning outfield fly balls into outs (55.8%). Ha-seong Kim had the best DRS per inning rate in the league while also mixing in strong defense at third. Russell struggled defensively at shortstop, but was able to put up 4 DRS in limited time at second base.

The “Track It Down” Team Award – Samsung Lions

The “Track It Down” Award is going to the outfield group that did the best job at converting fly balls into outs, which was the Samsung Lions. The Lions turned 59.7% of air balls to the outfield into outs, 1.1% better than the second place NC Dinos, and over three percentage points above the league average of 56.6%. If we look at all air balls, and not just those hit to the outfield, the Lions still come out on top turning 67.8% into outs, again well above the league average of 65%.

The Lions outfield was led by Fielding Bible Award winner Hae-min Park in center field, who was second in DRS by center fielders with at least 1,000 innings at (behind only Jeong-dae Bae of the KT Wiz). The Lions also had help in the corners with Seung-gyu Park turning in an impressive 3 DRS in only 271 innings in right field, and Ja-wook Koo putting up respectable numbers in 445 innings in left field.