A slugger and a young speedster from a non-playoff club were the big winners Monday at the awards ceremony in South Korea’s top baseball league.
First baseman Park Byung-ho of the Nexen Heroes was voted the most valuable player of the Korea Baseball Organization, earning 73 of 91 possible votes cast by baseball journalists.
The 26-year-old led the league with 31 home runs, 105 RBI and a .561 slugging percentage and played every game in the 133-game season. He also swiped 20 bases to become the 23rd member of the “20-20” club, with at least 20 homers and 20 steals in the same year. Samsung Lions’ starter Jang Won-sam, who led the KBO with 17 wins, was a distant second with eight votes.
Seo Geon-chang, Park’s Nexen teammate, grabbed the Rookie of the Year prize in a landslide, earning 79 of 91 possible votes. The 23-year-old second baseman led all rookies with 39 steals and 115 hits in 127 games, and had more triples than anyone this year with 10. The runner-up Park Ji-hoon, a reliever for the Kia Tigers, received seven votes.
The Seoul-based Heroes finished in sixth place among eight KBO teams with 61 wins, 69 losses and three draws, two spots out of playoffs.
In the KBO’s 30-year history, Park is the third player to win an MVP for a team that didn’t make the postseason. Park and Seo are just the fourth pair of teammates to win the MVP and the Rookie of the Year awards in the same season. In 2006, Hanwha Eagles’ pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin won both the MVP and the top rookie prize.
The award winners including MVP Park Byung-ho (third from right, front row) and Rookie of the Year Seo Geon-chang (fifth from right, front row) pose with Koo Bon-neung (fourth from right, front row), commissioner of the Korea Baseball Organization, which governs the local pro baseball league, during a ceremony in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap News)
Park enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2012, his sixth in the KBO but first as a full-time starter. Prior to this year, his career high in home runs and RBI were 13 and 31, both set in 2011.
He batted .290 this year, after batting below .200 in three of his past five years. He’d come to the Heroes via a midseason trade from the LG Twins in July 2011.
“Until last year, I couldn’t even dream of winning such a big prize,” Park said. “I had doubts about my ability as a baseball player, and there were times when I wanted to quit. I’d like to thank the Heroes team for giving me a second life as a baseball player with the trade. I hope to be an inspiration for minor league players.”
Seo joined the Twins as a practice squad player in 2008 but had just one at-bat for them before getting released later that year.
After completing his military service, Seo joined the Heroes late last year and became the everyday second baseman early in the season when incumbent Kim Min-seong was injured.
In accepting the award, Seo also thanked the Heroes for giving him the opportunity to play and prove himself.
“I’d like to share this honor with my teammates,” he said. “I will try to build on this season moving forward.”
The Heroes were the KBO’s Cinderella story early and reached first place in May thanks to a franchise-record eight-game winning streak. After ending the first half in third, the Heroes were beset with injuries in the latter part of the season and ended sixth.
Both players likely benefited from changes to the voting rules this year.
Until 2011, the media cast their ballots after the end of the championship Korean Series, and players’ performances in the postseason were taken into consideration. That essentially eliminated top players on non-playoff teams from the MVP race.
Those who enjoyed an excellent regular season only to falter in the playoffs were also often overlooked by voters.
This year, however, voting was held immediately after the end of the regular season in early October, allowing players like Park to enter the MVP conversation.
The KBO doesn’t present an equivalent of the Cy Young Award in Major League Baseball, which is given to the top pitcher in the American League and National League each year. Since the KBO began in 1982, pitchers have won 12 MVPs. (Yonhap News)