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(Yonhap Feature) Perception of No. 2 hitter changing in S. Korean baseball

2018/04/19 09:00

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By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, April 19 (Yonhap) -- Josh Donaldson, Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Yoenis Cespedes and Kris Bryant.

What do these Major League Baseball (MLB) sluggers have in common? They have won MVPs, Rookie of the Year honors or Silver Slugger Awards. And they have launched 30 or more home runs in at least one season in their careers and have been named to All-Star teams as well. One could make a compelling argument they are the best hitters on their clubs.

Also, they are the primary No. 2 hitters in their respective lineups.

And before he was traded to the New York Yankees over the winter, Giancarlo Stanton was the Miami Marlins' No. 2 hitter in 2017. He launched 47 home runs from the No. 2 hole, a major league record, and was voted the National League MVP thanks to 59 homers in total.

These stars don't seem to fit the mold of a traditional No. 2 hitter, someone who can slap the ball the other way or put down bunts to advance the runner, with any sort of power considered a bonus. Instead, they are part of a new breed to set foot in the No. 2 hole -- sluggers who can generate offense by themselves with one swing of the bat and who can also get on base to set up chances for the heart of the order.

"The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball," a groundbreaking book on statistical analysis of the sport, noted the No. 2 hitter comes to bat in situations as important as the No. 3 hitter does but does so more often. Statistically, it makes sense to give the best hitters more opportunities in key situations.

In this file photo from March 28, 2018, Roger Bernadina of the Kia Tigers watches his fly ball against the Samsung Lions during the bottom of the third inning in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap) In this file photo from March 28, 2018, Roger Bernadina of the Kia Tigers watches his fly ball against the Samsung Lions during the bottom of the third inning in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

And in 2018, teams in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) have also fallen in love with the idea that their best hitters should be batting second in the lineup.

Defending champions Kia Tigers have moved outfielder Roger Bernadina into the No. 2 hole this year. In 2017, his first season in the KBO, Bernadina didn't play any of his 139 games in the second spot in the lineup. He either led off or batted third and had an outstanding season with 27 home runs, 32 steals, 118 runs scored and a .320 batting average.

Through Tuesday, he had appeared in 14 of his 18 games as the No. 2 hitter and is off to a much better start than a year ago. Bernadina batted just .255 with one home run and nine RBIs in his first 25 games in 2017, struggling amid whispers that he should be sent down to the minors to get his act together. But in 2018, Bernadina was batting .290 with four home runs and 11 RBIs, along with a team-best 17 runs scored through Tuesday.

And his manager Kim Ki-tai enjoys having Bernadina in the new place in the lineup.

"He has a great work ethic, and he always practices hard," Kim said before a game April 1. "Last year, he just had to go through a bit of an adjustment period in the new league."

   Former major league outfielder Kim Hyun-soo returned to the KBO for 2018 and now occupies the No. 2 hole for the LG Twins. In his previous KBO season in 2015 for the Doosan Bears, Kim batted either third or fourth, and produced career highs of 28 home runs and 121 RBIs.

In this file photo from April 3, Kang Baek-ho of the KT Wiz (R) runs toward first base after hitting a grounder against the Nexen Heroes during the top of the third inning in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap) In this file photo from April 3, Kang Baek-ho of the KT Wiz (R) runs toward first base after hitting a grounder against the Nexen Heroes during the top of the third inning in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Hoping Kim would put up similar power numbers, the Twins manager Ryu Joong-il inserted Kim in the fifth hole to begin the 2018 season. In the first two games there, Kim went 2-for-8. Then Ryu moved him up to the No. 2 spot. He homered in his second game there, on March 28, and hasn't moved since.

Kim's abilities to put the ball in play, hit for power and draw walks make him uniquely suited as the modern-day No. 2 hitter. Through Tuesday's games, Kim was leading all No. 2 hitters with 22 hits, 12 walks and 40 total bases, and was tied with Bernadina for most home runs with four.

Ryu used Kim in the second spot in a few preseason games in March and said he believed the No. 2 man should be the team's best hitter "to help improve the overall offense of that ball club."

   Different spots in the lineup require different roles and responsibilities, but Kim said he's always ready to hit anywhere.

"I don't really worry about my spot in the batting order, and I don't have any preference," Kim said before the start of the season. "Wherever (Ryu) puts me in the lineup, I'll try to be the best hitter for that particular spot."

   Lotte Giants outfielder Son A-seop is such a versatile hitter that he split the 2017 season in the leadoff, No. 2 and No. 3 spots. He had the most plate appearances as the No. 2 man with 282 and was also most productive there, with nine home runs, 35 RBIs and a .990 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS). Overall, Son led the KBO in hits and enjoyed his first 20-20 season in 2017 with 20 homers and 25 steals.

This year, Son has also been the Giants' primary No. 2 hitter, appearing in 13 of his 18 games through Tuesday. And he has been the lone bright spot for a team mired in last place, with a .329/.434/.471 line, two homers, 11 RBIs and 15 runs scored.

In this file photo from April 11, 2018, Son A-seop of the Lotte Giants (R) scores on a sacrifice fly against the Nexen Heroes during the bottom of the fifth inning in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Munsu Baseball Stadium in Ulsan, 410 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap) In this file photo from April 11, 2018, Son A-seop of the Lotte Giants (R) scores on a sacrifice fly against the Nexen Heroes during the bottom of the fifth inning in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Munsu Baseball Stadium in Ulsan, 410 kilometers southeast of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Son also had 250 plate appearances as the leadoff man in 2017, but the arrival of Min Byung-hun from the Bears via free agency has allowed Son to focus on hitting out of the No. 2 hole.

Min was the Bears' primary leadoff hitter last year, with 341 plate appearances, and batted .304 with nine home runs and 37 RBIs, and had a solid .390 on-base percentage.

Lotte manager Cho Won-woo said prior to the season that he likes to put hitters in places where they're most comfortable.

"Son A-seop enjoys hitting out of the No. 2 hole, and he did a great job from that spot last year," Cho said. "Min Byung-hun is also most comfortable batting leadoff because he likes to see a lot of pitches at the start of the game."

   The KT Wiz are trying to stay out of the league cellar for the first time in the franchise history, after finishing last in each of the past three years. And they're pinning their hopes on 18-year-old rookie sensation Kang Baek-ho, who has thrived as their new No. 2 hitter.

After Kang homered in two of his first three games as the No. 8 hitter, his manager Kim Jin-wook moved Kang all the way up to the No. 2 hole. And Kang hasn't missed a beat in 15 games there.

He made seven straight starts in the No. 2 spot before moving briefly to the No. 5 hole, and in those seven games, Kang slugged at a .621 clip with two home runs, eight RBIs and five runs scored.

Through Tuesday, Kang was leading the team with a .316 batting average, seven doubles, 12 extra-base hits and 45 total bases. He was tied with Mel Rojas Jr. and Yoo Han-joon for the club lead with five home runs.

The Wiz averaged 3.7 runs per game in their first three games. And in the next six games with Kang as their No. 2 hitter, they averaged 8.8 runs per game. In an 8-5 win over the SK Wyverns on March 28, Kang hit two doubles, scored a run and drove in a run. The Wiz ended up scoring a run in both of the innings in which Kang had a hit.

In this file photo provided by the LG Twins baseball club on April 3, 2018, Kim Hyun-soo of the Twins celebrates his two-run homer against the Doosan Bears during the top of the ninth inning in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap) In this file photo provided by the LG Twins baseball club on April 3, 2018, Kim Hyun-soo of the Twins celebrates his two-run homer against the Doosan Bears during the top of the ninth inning in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)

It also helps to have some depth in the lineup, where powerful No. 2 hitters can be followed by other sluggers.

Bernadina hits in front of hard-hitting second baseman An Chi-hong and perennial MVP candidate Choi Hyoung-woo. Choi and An are first and second on the team in batting average with .385 and .369, while An leads the Tigers with six home runs and 18 RBIs.

Following Kang in the surging Wiz lineup are veteran hitters with pop: Rojas Jr., Yoo, and former San Francisco Giants third baseman Hwang Jae-gyun, who has contributed a pair of home runs, along with five doubles and two triples.

Kim Jin-wook said Kang's hot start compelled him to make the switch.

"I felt that Kang would get more pitches to hit if he was batting in front of some good hitters," Kim said on April 6, a few days after the change. "With Rojas and Hwang behind him, pitchers will have to pitch to Kang. Right now, I think it's the best spot for him in our lineup."

   Kang was a two-way star in high school as an ace pitcher and a hard-hitting catcher, and always batted either third or cleanup as an amateur.

"I've never hit in the No. 2 spot before," Kang said. "But I enjoy having more plate appearances."

   That's the whole point of placing the best hitters in the No. 2 spot -- to give them more opportunities than they'd be getting if they were batting further down in the lineup, so that teams could maximize their production.

And as it happens, the Wiz and the Tigers were first and third in team batting average with .294 and .293 through Tuesday. In the runs scored category, the Wiz were in first place with 125, with the Tigers having slipped from second to fifth in recent days with 107. They were second and third in OPS, with the Wiz checking in at .853 and the Tigers sitting at .840.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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