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Battle is on for Korean baseball’s MVP award

Sept 28,2017
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The Korean baseball season is in its final stretch, and as competition heats up among the league’s top teams, so, too, is the hustle for the Korea Baseball Organization’s MVP award.

It seemed the contest would be among the Kia Tigers’ top players, specifically pitchers Yang Hyun-jong and Hector Noesi and cleanup hitter Choi Hyoung-woo, but as the Tigers have slowed down their pace, Choi Jeong of the SK Wyverns and Kim Jae-hwan of the Doosan Bears are also making moves for the award.

Throughout the season, the Tigers have been considered a shoo-in for the pennant, and many expect the MVP award to go to a Tiger. Yang has been the best bet, having picked up 19 wins this season. During the team’s most recent game against the LG Twins on Tuesday, the 29-year-old pitcher gave up five hits and no runs while striking out four for seven innings to lead the Tigers to a 6-0 victory.

Yang is now the leader in number of wins among KBO pitchers, and since he will be starting in another game before the end of this season, he has a shot at becoming the first pitcher in Tigers history since Sun Dong-yol in 1990 to pick up 20 wins in a single season.

His teammate, Noesi, is second in number of wins at 18 and leads in winning percentage with 0.783. Considering Noesi has the highest number of innings per game, 6.67, in the KBO, his figures are just as impressive as Yang’s, and together, they form the league’s most formidable pitching team, earning notoriety for eating innings.

Among batters, the Tigers’ Choi is well ahead in the league. The 33-year-old cleanup hitter signed a lucrative four-year contract worth 10 billion won ($8.8 million) with the Tigers this season and has been the team’s problem solver, leading the KBO in on-base percentage and ranking second in runs batted in. The team has put him in 137 out of 139 games this season.

But judging from Choi’s record this month, he might be a long shot for the MVP award, as his batting average stands at 0.200 with one home run and eight RBIs.

Although a player from the top team might seem to have better odds of winning the MVP award, it’s not unusual to see the recipient come from another team. In fact, since 2010, Dustin Nippert has been the only player to both win the MVP award and see his team top the regular season.

Judging from the statistics, Choi of the Wyverns has become another favorite to win the MVP award. After the 2016 season, where Choi was crowned the KBO’s home run king along with Eric Thames, now with the Milwaukee Brewers, he has once again guaranteed a spot as home run king for a second straight season.

The 30-year-old power hitter has knocked a total of 46 homers this season, nine ahead of the second-place Wilin Rosario of the Hanwha Eagles. If Choi makes four more home runs in the next three games, he’ll become a favorite to win the award. Of the KBO’s 35 MVP awards presented, 18 have been won by a home run king.

Along with a home run record, Choi is hoping to top the KBO in slugging percentage for the second time.

Then there are the Bears, who are competing with the Kia Tigers for the regular season pennant. If the Bears win, which is not impossible at this point, their power hitter, Kim, might be another favorite.

Although the 29-year-old is not leading in any category among KBO batters, aside from stolen bases, he has managed to be ranked among the top nonetheless. The only factor that might rule him out is a positive doping test in October 2011, when he was banned from participating in 10 games and has tainted his reputation since.

Above all, the KBO’s new voting policy on the MVP will be another determinant. Up until 2015, judges were only allowed to vote for one player, but starting last year, the KBO started allowing judges to vote for up to five players and award each a certain number of points. The result will be determined based on points, rather than number of votes, and since there isn’t much of a gap between the top players’ performance, each point will make a difference.

Unlike the MVP award, which is still up for grabs, the Rookie of the Year award appears all but decided. Lee Jung-hoo of the Nexen Heroes was the dominant rookie this season, with a 0.328 batting average, two home runs, 47 RBIs and 12 stolen bases.

When Lee receives the award, he will be the first rookie since Lee Yong-chan of the Doosan Bears in 2007 to win the award without coming from the KBO’s minor Futures League.

And if he wins by unanimous decision, he’ll be the second rookie in KBO history to achieve the feat, after Park Jae-hong of the Hyundai Unicorns in 1996.

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]