Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics Baseball Team Preview: South Korea
South Korea is the reigning Olympic gold medalist after winning the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Thirteen years later, only three members of that gold medal-winning team remain: manager Kyung-moon Kim, outfielder Hyun-Soo Kim and closer Seung-Hwan Oh.
As South Korea gets set to begin its gold medal defense, here is a rundown of the team's strengths, weaknesses, key players and overall outlook.
WBSC World Rank: 3
How It Qualified: Finished second at WBSC Premier12 in 2019
Previous Olympics Appearances: 1984, 1988, 1996, 2000 (bronze), 2008 (gold)
Manager: Kyung-moon Kim
Kim, 62, is the most recognized Korean manager of the last 20 years. He led South Korea to the Olympic gold medal in 2008 and managed 15 seasons in the Korea Baseball Organization, South Korea's major league. He reached the Korean Series—the KBO's World Series—four times as a manager, leading the Doosan Bears to the championship series in 2005, 2007 and 2008 and the NC Dinos in 2016. Prior to managing, he played 10 seasons in Korea as a light-hitting catcher and excellent defender. Kim's teams are known for strong fundamentals, especially on defense, and he applies a lot of pressure on his players. He is quick to bench players if they make mistakes or have a bad game.
Top Players: RHP Seung-Hwan Oh, OF Hyun-Soo Kim, 3B Jae-Gyun Hwang, C Eui-ji Yang, 1B Baek-Ho Kang, RHP Won-Tae In
Kim, the former Orioles and Phillies outfielder, Hwang, the former Giants third baseman, and Oh, the former Cardinals closer, are the accomplished veteran leaders on the roster along with Yang, a 13-year veteran of Korea’s major league. The rest of the team skews young, led by 21-year-olds Kang and In. Kang is batting .395/.492/.579 with 10 home runs and 61 RBIs in the KBO, Korea’s major league, and is considered the top MLB prospect still in the country. In has a 2.93 ERA and a league-leading 10 wins and has long been advanced for his age.
South Korea is still smarting after being upset by Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. It opens with a rematch against Israel and is highly motivated to avenge its WBC loss … Kang and In have a chance to display their talents on a global stage and give fans a preview of what’s to come if they make the jump to MLB … Kim and Oh were members of South Korea’s 2008 gold medal-winning team and will try to win their second gold medal more than a decade later.
Pitching has been South Korea’s strength in previous international tournaments, but this time it’s the offense that headlines the team. Kim, Hwang, Yang, Baek, OF Jung-Hoo Lee and 1B/DH Jae-Il Oh lead a lineup that possesses solid contact skills up and down the order and has enough threats to do damage against the caliber of pitching it will face in Tokyo. Baek, Yang and Lee are the top three leaders in batting average in the KBO and Yang is tied for the league lead in home runs. South Korea will be missing one of its expected offensive leaders. 2B Min-Woo Park was suspended for the rest of the KBO season for violating social distancing rules earlier this month and withdrew from the national team.
South Korea's pitching is exceedingly young aside from Oh, with the 21-year-old In the best arm on the staff. It previously rode veteran starters like LHPs Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kwang-Hyun Kim and Hyeon-jong Yang to international success, but those pitchers are now in MLB and no heir apparent has emerged. In will try and carry the torch, but he’ll need help from a largely untested group. RHPs Kim Min-Woo and Se-Woong Park are pitchers to watch in the rotation while Oh and RHP Sang-Woo Choo, whose fastball has been clocked in the mid 90s, will anchor the bullpen. RHP Hyun-hee Han, a veteran sidearmer, was expected to be a key member of the staff but withdrew from the national team after he was found to have violated the KBO’s social distancing protocols earlier this month.
South Korea is always a threat in international play. While the pitching is a question mark, if the offense performs to its potential and the team plays clean defense, it has a chance to finish on the medal stand.