American fans will get the opportunity to watch Korean baseball beginning on Tuesday, as ESPN has reached an agreement to broadcast Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) games for the 2020 season.
Under the agreement, ESPN will show six games each week, starting with an Opening Day matchup between the NC Dinos and Samsung Lions.
Wake Up and Smell the Baseball
If fans want to watch live baseball from the United States, they’ll have to wake up pretty early in the morning. The Opening Day game starts at 1 am ET, with most other games airing at 4 am ET or 5:30 am ET.
“We’re thrilled to become the exclusive English-language home to the KBO League and to showcase its compelling action and high level of competition,” said ESPN executive vice president of programming Burke Magnus. “We have a long-standing history of documenting the game of baseball, and we’re excited to deliver these live events to sports fans.”
The KBO League features 10 teams, including the defending champion Doosan Bears. The top five teams make a ladder-style postseason, which begins with the fourth- and fifth-place teams facing off. The winner takes on the third-place finisher, and so on, until the survivor of the playoffs takes on the top seed in a best-of-seven final known as the KBO Korean Series.
FanDuel Sportsbook sees the Bears (+370) as the early favorites to win the KBO League, ahead of the SK Wyverns (+420) and the Kiwoom Heroes (+480).
Korean baseball isn’t a perfect substitute for the MLB, which is still on an indefinite hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the level of play is reasonable and professional. While Japan’s Nippon Pro Baseball offers competition that’s just a small step below MLB, the KBO League is more equivalent to something like Double-A competition on average.
KBO League Known for Bat Flips, Marginal MLB Talent
The KBO League features a very fan-friendly style of play. League officials may have introduced a new ball to tamp down offense in 2019, but there’s still more run-scoring than in most MLB games. Batters celebrate home runs with outrageous bat-flips that end up on highlight reels worldwide.
In terms of rules, American fans won’t see too many changes, at least until games get to extra innings. Games can end in ties after 12 innings, or 15 innings during the postseason. The KBO League uses a universal designated hitter rule as well.
MLB fans will see a handful of somewhat familiar names in the league, though there aren’t any former superstars hiding on KBO rosters. Each KBO League team can roster up to three foreign players: two pitchers and one hitter. These spots are typically taken by fringe MLB players or prospects who never quite lived up to their reputations. Some of the more notable names include former Mets relievers Drew Gagnon and Chris Flexen, longtime MLB starter Dan Straily, and former Phillies outfield prospect Aaron Altherr.
While Korea’s relatively successful response to the coronavirus pandemic has allowed the KBO League to begin play in early May, the impact of the outbreak will still be apparent. No fans will attend the games, players and team personnel will be tested regularly, and the league has banned both high fives and spitting. While a single positive COVID-19 test won’t shut the league down, it will close that team’s stadium for 48 hours and trigger meetings with government officials and health experts over how to proceed.