The KBO playoffs are at their final stages, with the Kiwoom Heroes meeting the LG Twins and the winner going on to face the SSG Landers in the Korean Series. A few familiar names from MLB in recent years had strong seasons in Korea, so let’s take a look at three of the top ex-MLB pitchers and three hitters that excelled there in 2022.
Adam Plutko (LG Twins): 162 IP (28 starts), 2.39 ERA, 0.7 HR/9, 2.1 BB/9, 8.3 K/9.
Plutko headed to Korea after struggling mightily in 2021 in Baltimore, pitching to a 6.71 ERA across 38 appearances. That came after four years in Cleveland where he put up a 5.05 ERA across 217 1/3 innings. Plutko had solid walk rates in the majors, but had difficulties with the long ball and posted poor strikeout rates. That’s perhaps not surprising, given scouts often viewed him as a pitcher lacking in elite stuff but with the command and deployment to make up for it. He’s enjoyed tremendous success in his first season in the KBO, however. Plutko is now a free agent, having played the 2022 season on a one-year deal with a $500K base salary and $300K in incentinves.
Drew Rucinski (NC Dinos): 193 2/3 IP (31 starts), 2.97 ERA, 0.7 HR/9, 1.6 BB/9, 9.0 K/9.
Rucinski, 33, enjoyed his fourth, and most successful, season in the KBO in 2022. The former Angels, Twins and Marlins pitcher has long been one of the best foreign pitchers in the league, and was the second highest foreign earner this year, taking home a $1.9MM base. He’s shown exceptional durability while in Korea, reaching 30 starts in each of his four seasons. This year, he posted his highest innings total, lowest ERA, and dropped his walk rate by around one batter per nine innings. Rucinski has also seen his ground ball percentage soar while in Korea, and his mark of 66.7% in 2022 is well north of his MLB rate of 48%.
Wilmer Font (SSG Landers): 184 IP (28 starts), 2.69 ERA, 0.9 HR/9, 1.7 BB/9, 8.3 K/9.
2022 was Font’s second season in the KBO, and comfortably his best. The 32-year-old improved his walk rate from a year prior, issuing one fewer free pass per nine innings. That helped his ERA drop from 3.46 to 2.69, but Font also worked deeper into ballgames and threw almost forty more innings in 2022 than a year earlier, all the while maintaining a strong 23.3% strikeout rate. Font bounced around the majors between 2012-20, appearing for six teams but struggling to post consistent results. One of the biggest shifts since his move to Korea is a huge uptick in ground ball percentage, as Font posted 55% and then 51.6% marks across the past two seasons, far above his MLB rates.
Jose Pirela (Samsung Lions): (141 games) .342/.411/.565, 28 HR, 55 BB, 81 K, 15 SB.
Pirela suited up for the Yankees, Padres and Phillies in the majors between 2014-19, before making the switch to Japan. After one year with the Hiroshima Carp, he moved to Korea to join the Lions. While Pirela posted strong numbers in his first year, he’s become one of the KBO’s most feared hitters in 2022. The 32-year-old finished second in home runs, hits, average and OBP all while striking out just 12.9% of the time. It was a sizable jump from 2021, when he hit .284/.357/.490 with 28 home runs. While a small dip in strikeouts would’ve helped, he was certainly boosted by a .361 BABIP in 2022, almost 70 points higher than the previous season. Nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see if Pirela garners any MLB attention this winter on the back of an MVP-level year in Korea.
Anthony Alford (KT Wiz): (80 games) .286/.362/.509, 14 HR, 33 BB, 90 K, 5 SB.
Alford, 28, was released from a minor league deal with the Guardians in May to pursue an opportunity in Korea, where he’s impressed greatly, showcasing some of the exciting talent that made him one of baseball’s top young prospects between 2016-18. Alford tallied 240 plate appearances for the Blue Jays and Pirates with a whopping 37.9% strikeout rate. Those strikeouts were still a problem in Korea, but he cut that back to 27.9%. As a prospect, Alford was always touted as having the power and athleticism to be a star, and while he hasn’t been able to tap into that at the top level, he’s still young enough that a second season overseas with improvements shown could make him an intriguing candidate for a second crack at the majors.
Socrates Brito (Kia Tigers): (127 games) .311/.354/.494, 17 HR, 34 BB, 81 K, 12 SB.
Released by the Yankees at the end of the 2021 campaign after bouncing around major league teams providing minor league outfield depth, Brito inked his first KBO deal for 2022. While he’d hit just .179/.216/.309 across 218 MLB plate appearances, the 30-year-old found his groove in Korea. Through the minors and into the majors, Brito’s strikeout rate had generally hovered a bit above 20%, but he cut that back to 14.6% in Korea. Brito often put up stellar Triple-A numbers, but struggled in his last season at the level in the Yankees organization, so it’s possible that a strong season in Korea will give him the chance to return to the US and seek another crack as solid outfield depth on an MLB team.