Image credit: Min-Woo Park (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
With baseball around the world largely on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Korea Baseball Organization and Chinese Professional Baseball League have reached unprecedented levels of attention as the only professional leagues currently operating.
With English-language broadcasts of the CBPL streaming on Twitter and ESPN televising one KBO game everyday, American viewers are getting their first extended looks at those leagues and the talent levels within them.
Naturally, that leads to a common question: How good are these leagues compared to what we see in the U.S.?
Baseball America surveyed scouts and front office officials with experience covering both major and minor league baseball and the Pacific Rim to see what they had to say.
The short answers:
The KBO is between Double-A and Triple-A in terms of talent and competition level.
The CPBL is between high Class A and low Class A.
Overall, here is the hierarchy of how MLB front office officials and evaluators generally view the quality of the various Asian leagues compared to MLB and the minor leagues.
There was some variance in the responses. Some evaluators felt the KBO was equivalent to Double-A rather than above it. Some felt the CPBL was equivalent to high Class A rather than below it.
But the range of variance was limited to just those small tweaks. No evaluator felt the KBO was equivalent to Triple-A or worse than Double-A. No evaluator felt the CPBL was better than high Class A or worse than low Class A.
Some of the CPBL’s standing is a product of current international signing practices. MLB teams are severely restricted from signing Japanese players before they reach NPB. Rules for Korean amateurs are less restrictive, but most of the best players still end up in the KBO and come to the U.S. only after spending years in the league.
That is not the case in the CPBL. MLB teams often sign Taiwanese players as amateur international free agents like they do in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. As such, the best young talent often leaves Taiwan before ever playing in the CPBL.
“Taiwan’s high school and college system is a lot more open to coming to MLB as kids, where as the Koreans and the Japanese, we really can’t get them,” one international scouting coordinator said. “There’s so many rules and restrictions and if they do go (without going through the posting system), they ban playing in their leagues for x amount of years when they return. You look at someone like Junichi Tazawa, who went from the (Japanese) Industrial League to Boston (and skipped NPB), he got a two-year ban when he went back. So it’s really tough to get them out. Where as in Taiwan we can get the kids to sign as any international signee. As long as they turn 17 we can sign them by July 2 the year before. So we’ve really picked those kids over.”
The CPBL was also roiled by a series of game-fixing scandals through the 1990s and early 2000s that gave it a bad reputation for American or Latin American players looking to play overseas.
The CPBL has recovered some and does have a number of ex-major leaguers or longtime minor leaguers in the league. As a result, the level of play can rise above high Class A at its best. However, the league has not had any domestic player of interest to MLB clubs—including current slugger Chu Yu-Hsien, according to multiple scouting officials—since outfielder Wang Po-Jang left for NPB after 2018, leaving the league short on overall talent.
“It just gets back to whoever is starting on the mound,” another Pacific Rim scout said. “You could have a couple of guys with big league experience pitching, a couple of American guys, but then by the fifth day you have guys that wouldn’t play college baseball pitching. So it’s hard to give an overall grade, but if you said high Class A, that’s probably where it evens out.”
The KBO is a different story. South Korea is often among the best teams in international play and some of the KBO’s top players have successfully transitioned to MLB in the last decade, including Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jung-Ho Kang and Seung-Hwan Oh. It’s also been deemed a worthy enough competition level for clubs to give out multi-year contracts to ex-MLB players who go to the league and show they’ve improved.
Eric Thames and Merrill Kelly received multi-year deals in 2016 and 2018, respectively, based on their KBO performances. Most recently, former journeyman reliever Josh Lindblom signed a three-year, $9.125 million contract with the Brewers after winning the KBO’s MVP award in 2019.
“If you had seen Lindblom the year before, you wouldn’t have thought he’d have the year he had last year,” the scouting coordinator said. “But they teach them how to pitch backwards, they teach them a new grip, they teach them a few other things in Asia. They sometimes pick up a split-finger, things like that, so any of them (who go over) have probably got a chance.”
Regardless of competition level, the CBPL and KBO are ably filling the holes left by the continued shutdown of MLB, NPB and the minor leagues.
With those leagues shut down indefinitely, the CBPL and KBO are primed to continue drawing attention and have a chance make an indelible imprint on fans, players, scouts and front office officials.