Almost every team in the World Baseball Classic struggles with pitching depth. With pitch counts and pitchers still stretching out for the season, teams need contributions from all over their roster. Team Korea is no exception, as it will be missing two pitchers who could have been rotation anchors in Hyun-jin Ryu and KBO ace Woo-jin An (note, you may see some of these names differently depending on where you see them – Korean naming convention is traditionally last name first).
Team Korea will still feature pitchers with plenty of experience in the KBO, and a couple with MLB experience as well in Kwang-hyun Kim (2020-21 with St. Louis) and Hyeon-jong Yang (2021 with Texas). Beyond those two, the team features pitchers who have performed well domestically in the KBO as well.
At Sports Info Solutions, we watch a lot of KBO as part of the data tracking we do. So we’re well-versed in their players. We will be highlighting some of their top pitchers here.
Kwang-hyun Kim will be the ace of Team Korea, but how the rest of the rotation lines up is still up in the air. Fellow lefty Chang-mo Koo will likely also start in the WBC, and is one of the best KBO pitchers when healthy. Health is a bit of a concern for Koo, who has thrown only 205 innings over the past three seasons, and missed all of the 2021 season.
Koo gained popularity for his lights-out performance early in the 2020 KBO season, before getting hurt later in the season. Koo commands his fastball well, which is necessary as he averages 89 MPH with the pitch. His slider is one of the best breaking balls in the KBO, and while he doesn’t throw it very hard at 82 MPH, it has good horizontal movement and had a 36% whiff rate last season.
Koo also throws a good splitter almost exclusively to right-handed hitters, who clearly struggled with it as evidenced by a 38% whiff rate against the pitch. He also rounds out his repertoire with a slow, loopy curveball that he uses as a change of pace pitch.
Tae-in Won from the Samsung Lions will also likely start games for Team Korea. Won lacks a power fastball (he averaged 90 MPH last season), but he has a great changeup with a strong 12 MPH velocity differential from his fastball with really good two-plane fade. He also has improved his slider and added a cutter, as we covered last season.
Won is also a good fielder at his position, winning the 2022 KBO Fielding Bible Award at pitcher. For a right-handed pitcher, Won is exceptional at controlling the running game. In 2022 he allowed only 6 stolen bases all season, while also picking off 6 runners.
Eui-lee Lee may start or come out of the bullpen for Team Korea, but the Kia Tigers’ lefty is one of the best young pitchers in the KBO. Lee can be effectively wild at times, but he provides Team Korea with their strongest arm from the left side (his average fastball velocity was 91 MPH as a starter last year).
Lee also throws one of the hardest curveballs in the KBO, which averages 78 MPH. He rounds out his repertoire with a slider that he will use against left-handed and right-handed hitters, and a changeup that he uses exclusively against right-handers. The slider and changeup are his least used pitches, but he sets them up well which makes them his best swing-and-miss pitches.
Doosan Bears starter Been Gwak is the most likely of the starters to transition to the bullpen for Team Korea, as he is less established than the other starters. Gwak has more velocity on his fastball than most KBO starters, averaging 92 MPH as a starter last season. Team Korea could be hoping that his fastball plays up in short stints, but it is also worth noting that his fastball was hit quite hard by KBO hitters last year.
Gwak brings a deep repertoire to the table, and he could cut it down to just his best pitches working in shorter stints. His slider, splitter and curveball all had whiff rates above 30% last season.
LG Twins Relievers
As a league, the KBO does not feature a lot of pitchers with high velocity, with most pitchers featuring high 80s fastballs and good offspeed pitches. The LG Twins have two of the best power relief prospects in the league, and both will be featured on Team Korea.
Woo-suk Go is LG’s closer, and the hardest throwing relief arm in the KBO. His fastball sits at 95 MPH and touched 98 last year, and he has thrown it over 50% of the time. Instead of featuring a changeup or splitter, Go relies on three breaking balls (a cutter, slider and curveball). His breaking balls can all overlap in shape and velocity, but he throws them all well above the KBO average velocity for each pitch type.
Go is still young at 24 years old, and he has steadily brought his walk rate down the last few years. He also has a lot of experience in high leverage situations with 124 career KBO saves, including a career best 42 saves in 44 opportunities in 2022. Expect him to be pitching high- leverage innings for Team Korea.
While having a flamethrower like Go in the bullpen is a luxury for most KBO teams, the Twins have two relievers with big fastballs to shut down opponents late in games. Woo-young Jung, LG’s 23 year old setup man, just trails Go in average velocity at 94 MPH on his fastball which still makes him one of the hardest throwers in the KBO.
Unlike Go, who primarily pitches from a standard ¾ arm slot, Jung is a sidearming righty who gives batters a bit of a different look. Due to his arm slot, Jung’s fastball gets a lot of sink and tail which makes it difficult to square up and elevate. In 2022 Jung’s fastball produced grounders on 72% of balls in play and he gave up only 3 home runs all season. This is even more impressive when you consider he threw the fastball over 90% of the time, so hitters were often sitting on fastballs.
Overall, Team Korea may be light on power in the pitching department, but the staff is fairly deep with pitchers who have had success in a strong league. Should the team make it out of pool play, the depth of their staff will be tested by the strong offenses of teams that make it to the knockout rounds.