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KBO may get first two-way player in 30 years

Sept 15,2017
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Kang Baek-ho, who will play for the KT Wiz in the 2018 season, watches his pitch during a high school baseball game. [YONHAP]
Kang Baek-ho, the rookie draftee set to join the KT Wiz next year, is set to become the first player in the Korea Baseball Organization in 32 years to play as both a pitcher and a batter.

Prior to the draft, Kang was already the most sought-after rookie in Korea. If he hadn’t been drafted in the first round competition would have been fierce as every club hoped to sing Kang.

Kang’s ability to pitch as fast as 153 kilometers (95 miles) per hour and hold a batting average above 0.400 not only made Kang an attractive prospect, but also left clubs struggling to decide what position they would play him in.

After some deliberation the Wiz decided to have him as a batter and, at the same time, use him in the bullpen to strengthen the team.

If Kang does pitch and bat he will become the second player to do so in KBO history. Though on paper Kang’s skills are promising, there are concerns over whether he’ll be able to keep up his skills in both positions, as it is very rare for a player to manage two positions in one season.

During the 1982 season, when the Haitai Tigers didn’t have a strong roster, Kim Sung-han won the RBI title, playing as the Tigers’ clean-up hitter. At the same time, Kim played as the Tigers’ pitcher, picking up ten wins, five losses and a save. Not only did Kim play in all 80 games that season, he also managed to get on the mound in 26 of the games, recording a 2.88 ERA and 0.305 batting average.

But since his rookie year, Kim slowly had less playing time, as he had a hard time physically. After the 1986 season Kim stopped pitching all together and switched to just batting as he physically couldn’t continue playing in both positions. Since those first few years of Kim’s career there hasn’t been a player that could successfully play in both positions.

Though the chance of Kang succeeding as both a pitcher and a batter is slim, there has been a player who has been successful in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Shohei Otani. With the ability to pitch a baseball as fast as 160 kilometers per hour and maintain a batting average above 0.300, Otani has certainly surprised the world of baseball.

Otani was not only selected for the Pacific League roster in the 2013 All-Star Game as an outfielder, but he was selected again in 2015 as a pitcher, becoming the first player in 52 years to be the selected to the All-Star team as both a pitcher and an outfielder. Since Otani has announced that he will be heading to the major league through the posting system upon completion of the 2017 season, many of the big league clubs have already shown an interest in him.

But Otani’s success is not likely to last very long, as he didn’t pitch much this season due to injuries. Otani was unable to participate at the World Baseball Classic in March and throughout the season he only appeared as a batter.

In the major league this year there have been some players who attempted to play in two positions: Christian Bethancourt of the San Diego Padres and Brett Eibner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Though the two were great pitchers in their amateur careers, once they turned professional they solely focused on batting. Bethancourt is now a catcher and Eibner is now an outfielder.

Even worse, as a result of his attempt to manage two positions, Bethancourt was relegated to the minors after failing to perform in both pitching and batting and Eibner is out for the season for surgery, even before he had a chance to make his major debut.

“During the 1980s, only 80 games were played in a season,” said Lee Soon-chul, SBS Sports Commentator. “But Kim Sung-han still found it difficult to keep up throughout the season physically and with minor injuries. And now, since 144 games are played in a season, I think it will be a little more difficult for Kang to keep up with two positions.”

Kang dominated high school baseball, and the people who watched Kang play have all spoken highly of him, saying he is a “genius” born with the athletic gift.

“Since the players have different physiques, it is hard to determine whether a player will succeed or fail before even watching him play,” Lee said. “But in the professional stage, where it’s hard to be good at one thing at times, I question if he’ll be able to do both.”

Not only that, since multiple players compete for one position to play in the KBO, there may be a possibility of having conflict among players if Kang were to take up two positions.

“It seems like batting is a better fit for him, but he needs to try different things on the professional stage when he’s young,” said Kim Jin-wook, manager of the Wiz. “Later in his career, he may have regrets over being a pitcher. So I want him to find the position that he wants to play in after having the experience of playing in both positions.”

BY BAE YOUNG-EUN [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]