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Record-breaking pitcher building MVP case in KBO

Ariel Miranda of the Doosan Bears pitches against the LG Twins in the top of the third inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Ariel Miranda of the Doosan Bears pitches against the LG Twins in the top of the third inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)
A record-breaking ace is putting together a solid case for the most valuable player (MVP) award in South Korean baseball this year, with a handful of other contenders looking to make a last-minute push in the final stretch of the regular season.

Doosan Bears' left-hander Ariel Miranda strengthened his candidacy on Sunday by becoming the new single-season strikeout king in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). The Cuban ace picked up four strikeouts against the LG Twins to reach 225 for the season, surpassing the previous record of 223 set by the Lotte Giants legend Choi Dong-won in 1984.

In addition to leading the KBO in strikeouts, Miranda is also tops with a 2.33 ERA. He will fall short of a Triple Crown, as he is two wins behind the leader, David Buchanan of the Samsung Lions, with only enough time for one more start remaining.

If Miranda becomes the MVP, he will be the first pitcher to be so honored without leading the league in wins. Thirteen pitchers have grabbed a combined 15 MVPs in the KBO, and all of them led the league in wins in their MVP seasons.Miranda was already good in the first half and has been downright dominant in the second half. He has kept his monthly ERA in August, September and October below 2.00, and has allowed just one home run in 78 innings since the midseason break, while striking out 102 and walking 26.

Buchanan, despite being the current wins leader and playing for a team with a better record than the Bears, doesn't have a compelling MVP case. He is fifth in strikeouts with 154 and fifth in ERA with 2.96. He doesn't even have the lowest ERA on his own team, with rotation mate Baek Jung-hyun sporting a 2.57 ERA.

And Buchanan could be splitting MVP votes with another teammate, closer Oh Seung-hwan.

Oh started receiving some MVP love after recording his 40th save on Oct. 13. At 39, Oh became the oldest pitcher with 40 or more saves in a KBO season, breaking the previous record by nearly eight years. He is the league leader now with 44 saves.

While the true value of saves is up for debate in this age of analytics, Oh has the narrative in his favor. He has closed out 44 of the Lions' league-best 75 wins, sending his club into the postseason for the first time since 2015.

Among position players, NC Dinos' catcher Yang Eui-ji is first in the KBO with 108 RBIs, a .582 slugging percentage and a .994 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). The 34-year-old is considered the league's most complete catcher, a great game caller who also provides value with his bat. Yang was the MVP runner-up in both 2019 and 2020.

Yang is trying to become the first catcher since Lee Man-soo of the Samsung Lions in 1987 to lead the KBO in RBIs, and also just the third backstop to win MVP here, after Lee in 1983 and Park Kyung-oan of the Hyundai Unicorns in 2000.

In those seasons, Lee and Park did something that Yang is unlikely to do this year: lead the league in home runs. Of the 24 times that a hitter was named the MVP in the KBO, only four winners failed to top the home run leaderboard.

SSG Landers' third baseman Choi Jeong is the current home run leader with 35, six ahead of Yang, and is tied for second in RBI with 100. But Choi sits 20 points behind Yang in OPS and nearly 50 points back in batting average. And Choi is on pace to become just the second hitter in the last eight years to win the home run crown without surpassing the 40-homer plateau.

No hitter has won an MVP without leading the KBO in at least one category. And falling from the top across the board will likely cost Kang Baek-ho of the KT Wiz in the MVP race.

He once flirted with a .400 batting average and led everyone in hits and on-base percentage. He cooled off in the second half, losing nearly 100 points in his OPS. Kang is still among the top three in batting average, hits, RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, without being the leader in any of them.

Lee Jong-beom's son, Kiwoom Heroes' outfielder Lee Jung-hoo, has zipped past Kang in batting average and is among the leaders in doubles, on-base percentage and OPS. But the junior Lee has missed 21 games this season.

All of these candidates play for clubs that are either bound for the postseason or are trying to get there.

In the league's 39-year history, only three MVP winners have come from non-playoff clubs. (Yonhap)
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