Are bettors so hungry for sports action during the coronavirus crisis that they will bet on games with cardboard cutouts of fans in the stands or, dare to believe, preseason baseball?
Many of the same bookmakers who have been taking bets on third-world soccer and Scandinavian chess are now using Asian games to scratch the baseball itch.
The Korean Baseball Organization league and Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League are playing games that are available to U.S. bettors with apps in hand. At least 49 former major-league players — 34 in Korea and 15 in Taiwan — are on the rosters. Most are pitchers. But with no names bigger than, say, Ariel Miranda, Esmil Rogers and Aaron Brooks, they are competing at a level about on a par with Double-A baseball in the U.S.
Using mostly American League rules — yes, with a designated hitter — the most important distinction in the KBO league and the CPBL is that no regular-season game goes more than 12 innings. If there is still no winner, the game shows up in the standings as a tie.
Games are available for livestreaming via the Korean site Naver.com and from Taiwan via CPBLStats.com. Reports have circulated that ESPN might pick up some games from Korea. Otherwise, have Google Translate at the ready.
The good news for bettors trying to research the Asian competition is that excellent English-language websites exist that provide exhaustive information on each, MyKBO.net and CPBLStats.com.
The bad news is that this is not Major League Baseball, so some caveats are in order.
Feels like springtime in Korea
Delayed four weeks by the pandemic, the KBO league’s exhibition schedule began behind closed doors Monday with all 10 teams scheduled to play four games before starting the regular season. Most games start at 5 a.m. EDT.
Most U.S. bookmakers taking bets on these games put a collective toe in the water with limited options that will remind bettors of spring training.
“We do have moneylines for South Korean preseason baseball,” said Chris Bennett, who manages the book at Circa Sports. “No totals or run lines, the same as the MLB preseason. I think we will have full-game moneylines, totals and run lines once the regular season starts.”
Opening day was pushed back to May 5. With plans for each club to play the full 144-game schedule, the regular season is expected to end in November. The top five make the playoffs, with the first-place team automatically placed in the Korean Series finals, which could end as late as Nov. 28. Because weather could be a problem, the later rounds of the postseason will be played indoors at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul.
Although no futures have been posted, the defending champion Doosan Bears figure to be the favorites to three-peat in 2020 and claim their fourth title in six years. They return a team that had the second-best offense, the second-best pitching staff and the best defense in 2019. Former Angels infielder Jose Miguel Fernandez led the Bears with a .344 batting average, adding 15 home runs and 88 RBIs. But they lost 20-game-winning pitcher Josh Lindblom, who returned to the U.S. to play for the Brewers.
Runners-up last year, the Kiwoom Heroes could have the home-field advantage if they get back to the Korean Series. Shortstop Ha-Seong Kim, 24, is their best all-around player, hitting .307 last year with 19 homers and 104 RBIs.
Before being swept by the Heroes in last year’s semifinals, the SK Wyverns (named for flying dragons) tied the Bears for the best regular-season record. They still have the power-hitting duo of Jeong Choi and ex-Dodger and Diamondback Jamie Romak, who hit 29 homers apiece. But they lost 17-game winner Gwang-hyun Kim to the Cardinals.
“The top teams are expected to be similar to last year,” said Dan Kurtz, who runs MyKBO.net from Olympia, Wash. “But with new foreign players each year, it definitely can change things for the midlevel teams.”
Those teams could include the LG Twins, who return a pair of 14-game-winning Americans in Casey Kelly and Tyler Wilson. The Kia Tigers missed the playoffs despite power-pitching left-hander Hyeon-jong Yang. The NC Dinos still have catcher Ui-ji Yang, who led the KBO league in WAR, according to the Korean baseball website Statiz.co.kr.
One trend that has not lingered in the KBO league the way it has in the U.S. has been the offensive explosion. Last year it went completely in reverse. Home runs were down. Way down, by 43%, from 1,756 in 2018 to 1,014 in 2019.
“They said the ball didn’t change,” Kurtz said. “But fans and everyone else called it the de-juicing of the ball. Way less five- to 10-run games.”
So how will a league that was kinder and gentler to pitchers look without fans in the stands and a late start in 2020? With doubleheaders likely to be wedged into the schedule to make up for monsoon rainouts and lost time, Kurtz predicts managers will be going to their bullpens a lot more.
“Playing a full, condensed schedule, I am projecting to see shorter leashes on guys,” Kurtz said. “But we also saw that, to preserve energy, some managers won’t do a lot of replacements if they are involved in lopsided games.”
Longtime Bears manager Kim Tae-hyeong told the Yonhap News Agency it will not be easy to maintain a certain quality of play with a condensed schedule.
“We’re supposed to play hard and not give up in any game,” he said. “But we’ll have to make compromises. I understand fans have high expectations. But from my vantage point, it’s not easy to live up to them.”
Monkeys make it count in Taiwan
They were already winners in their first five games this season, including an opener with robotic fans that amused TV news editors around America. Aside from playing without live spectators, the Rakuten Monkeys are picking up where they left off last year.
“Only the Monkeys can dethrone themselves,” said Rob Liu, who runs the comprehensively influential website CPBLStats.com.
Welcome to the Chinese Professional Baseball League. Some would argue that the name of a league with all four teams based in Taiwan is a geopolitical overstatement, but that is an unsettled debate that has had bigger implications for more than 70 years.
One fact is not in dispute. The Monkeys are the CPBL’s answer to the 1950s New York Yankees. They have won the last three championships and 10 of the last 14. They have succeeded lately in what might be called the American way — by using their bats.
“The Monkeys are a pure hitting team with no pitching depth at all,” Liu wrote on his website. “They have to use their bats to cover their lack of pitching.”
But that works just fine in the CPBL, where 11 runs were scored in the average game last year. In the first 12 games of 2020, that number went up to 12. “It pretty much turned into a hitters’ league in 2015,” Liu said, “and it has stayed like that ever since.”
DraftKings took notice of how the Monkeys have built their dynasty on that trend, making them %plussign5 favorites to win another championship. The Fubon Guardians are %plussign 0, the Chinatrust Brothers %plussign50 and the Uni-President Lions %plussign$ 0.
Reigning MVP Chu Yu-Hsien hit .347 last year with a league-leading 30 home runs and 105 RBIs. He leads a Murderers’ Row in the middle of the Monkeys’ lineup that remains intact from 2019.
“For the most part the current season can be informed by what happened in the previous season,” Liu said. “If a player was hitting 3, 4 or 5 (in the lineup) last year, he will most likely hit 3, 4 or 5 again this year. Also, trading is almost nonexistent in the CPBL.”
Ex-Astros right-hander Henry Sosa was regarded as the league’s best pitcher starting last year, according to Liu. He went 8-2 with a 1.56 ERA before moving last June to play in Korea. Now Sosa is back in Taiwan, where despite a 1.93 ERA so far in 2020, he has already lost once. That came when the Guardians were swept in three games by, yes, the Monkeys.
“Pitching is probably the most difficult thing to predict in the CPBL,” Liu said. “As starting pitchers are mostly foreign players, they come and go, and it is rare to see them staying year after year. The relievers in the CPBL generally don’t have a long career, so there goes having any decent data to see the trends.”
The four CPBL teams are scheduled to play 120 games each, split into a 60-game first half and a 60-game second half and ending in mid-October. Although the league had not formalized its postseason structure, its normal practice is to have one round of playoffs before the best-of-seven Taiwan Series for the championship.
Although William Hill and PointsBet are booking the CPBL, Circa Sports is not.
“I did some research on that league and am not comfortable offering odds on it,” Bennett said. “The league structure lacks independence.”
He also pointed to five game-fixing scandals between 1996 and 2009. The last one led to the folding of a club, leaving the league with its current four teams. A fifth has been formed and will be added next year after playing a minor-league schedule in 2020.
But Liu said the bad news is old news. “The CPBL has been clean since 2010,” he said. “The league and the justice system have implemented new policies to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”
With that, then, let the bettor beware — and have at least a few options.
“We’d typically have about 125 markets available for wagering,” PointsBet’s Patrick Eichner said, comparing the Asian leagues to business as usual with Major League Baseball. “This includes all game markets, player props and PointsBetting options. For the lower-level and more obscure leagues, a la the CPBL or KBO, we are simply offering a moneyline, run line and total Over-Under.”
At least it is something. The question bettors will have to ask, then, is whether it is worth the gamble or better to wait until Major League Baseball resurfaces.
But one thing will not change. As Bennett put it at Circa, “I’m expecting most of the action to be sharp.”