‘Otani Shock’ reflects on Korean baseball…a decade later than Japan, but welcome reforms

“We will come up with mid- to long-term measures to improve league performance and national team competitiveness as soon as possible.”

Four months after the KBO announced in March that it would come up with measures to prevent the 2023 World Baseball Classic (WBC) from being a disaster, the organisation has announced a concrete plan. “As the national team’s power and performance in recent international tournaments have fallen short of the expectations of baseball fans, we have been preparing a long-term project to raise the level of league play and national team power and expand the base at the same time,” the KBO said on 20 March.

It’s no exaggeration to say that strengthening the national team is at the centre of the reforms. After South Korea suffered three consecutive first-round exits at the 2023 WBC, there were growing calls for the country to stop neglecting the game. The WBC is a tournament organised by Major League Baseball in the United States that brings together major leaguers from around the world. It’s no wonder that Korea has been called a “frog in the well” for its poor performance in the most prestigious international baseball tournament, where it has been eliminated in the first round every time.

In order to improve beyond the criticism, the team looked to the Japanese National Baseball Team as a role model. In 2011, Japan agreed to a permanent national team and a full-time head coach, and in 2012, the Samurai Japan Project Committee was established to establish the current national team system. In November 2013, Hiroki Kokubo took over as full-time head coach and Samurai Japan was officially launched. The frequent convening of the national team and the introduction of several pre-season and post-season tournaments to test the team’s strengths and weaknesses has led to a steady stream of good results in international competitions. A decade later, at the 2023 WBC, Japan made history by winning the title, led by two-hit superstar Shohei Ohtani (Los Angeles Angels).

South Korea has chosen to learn from Japan to avoid falling further behind in a decade that has already passed. It starts with a full-time head coach who can provide long-term, consistent direction for the national team until the 2026 WBC. This is the first time in two years that a full-time head coach has been appointed after Sun Dong-yeol at the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games and Kim Kyung-moon at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. For the 2023 WBC, KT Wiz manager Lee Kang-chul was in charge of the national team, but the tournament period coincided with spring training for the season, making it difficult for him to completely abandon his team.

The KBO also said, “Unlike the national team that was called up close to the tournament, we will continue to operate the national team by holding evaluation games and exchange games against overseas teams.” Specifically, it said that it will hold trial games with the LA Dodgers and San Diego Padres ahead of the 2024 MLB Seoul Opening Day, respectively, and that it will play games against teams from various countries every year to give domestic players international competitiveness and experience.

As Lee Jung-hoo (Kiwoom Heroes) said at the WBC, “We only convene when there is an international tournament, but I heard that Japan does it every year. I don’t know what the KBO will do in the future, but I think it would be good to gain experience in friendly games.” The request has become a reality.

South Korea used to freeze whenever they faced Japan with Ohtani in international competitions. Ohtani is a pitcher capable of throwing fastballs in excess of 160 kilometres per hour and a hitter with the home run production to lead the major leagues in home runs. While Ohtani is a rare star in the history of world baseball, he wasn’t the only one to win the title for Japan. It was the result of a combination of two-hitting prospects who grew up in the Samurai Japan system with years of international experience and veterans like Ohtani who peaked in the big leagues.안전놀이터

South Korea also has some promising youngsters who are poised for the big leagues. With veterans like Kim Kwang-hyun (SSG), Yang Hyun-jong (KIA), Yang Ji (Doosan), and Kim Hyun-soo (LG) retiring from international competition, it’s even more important to develop the next generation. The new generation is expected to be led by Lee Jung-hoo, who will challenge for the major leagues later this season, while pitchers Moon Dong-joo and Kim Seo-hyun (Hanwha) are raising the expectations of baseball fans by challenging Ma’s 160km fastball. Under the new national team system introduced by the KBO, can Korean baseball show a 180-degree turnaround in three years?

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