The NC Dinos are off to a perfect start in the KBO season and they look like an early-season version of the New York Mets.
In 2012, the New York Mets won their first four games, and out of nowhere, looked a little bit like a competent team. They kept playing games, and didn’t stop playing well, reaching a 46-39 peak the day before the All-Star break. They were in second place, 4.5 games out of the National League East and in position to win the second wild card.
Most people will remember what happened next: from that 46-39 high point, the Mets went 28-49 the rest of the way and finished 74-88, 24 games out of the division. But I don’t think Mets fans learned a lesson. I know I certainly didn’t. Regardless of how good the Mets really are, they tend to start seasons with bursts of productivity and excitement, and it’s all too easy to disregard a team’s true competition level when it’s winning games and jumping out to an early-season division lead.
Which brings us to the NC Dinos. They’re the Korean Baseball Organization with whom I’ve decided to ally myself, and Thursday morning, they soundly defeated the Samsung Lions to complete an opening series sweep. The Dinos won 8-2, and the game seemed mostly over, safe and secure, when they scored three runs in the third inning.
The Dinos look like a team on a mission. Starting pitcher Chang-mo Koo, who went 10-7 last season with a 3.20 ERA, pitched six scoreless innings. He allowed two walks and two hits, and struck out eight, looking dominant. Koo is only 23, pitching in his fifth season with the Dinos, and he’s always been able to strike opposing hitters out. Last season, the KBO, which sees vastly fewer strikeouts than MLB, averaged 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Major League Baseball averaged 8.9. Chang-mo Koo averaged 9.6.
Koo is only one illustration of the dynamic at work for the Dinos. Jae-Hwan Bae, a 24-year-old reliever, came into his own last year, pitching to a 3.81 ERA and averaging 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings. There’s also Sung-yeong Choi, just 23, who last season posted a 3.81 ERA, down from 5.88 the previous year. If the pitching staff can continue its development and take another step forward, they will be close to unstoppable.
These young guns combine with established pitching. Jae-hak Lee, 29, pitched to a 3.75 ERA last season. Closer Jong-hyeon Won finally seemed to find himself last year at age 31, with a 3.90 ERA and 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Won looked lights out on Opening Day. So did starter Drew Rucinski, who matched Koo’s six scoreless innings. Rucinski is in his second year with the Dinos. Last season, his ERA was 3.05.
And the pitching staff is only half the story. The other is the offense, which, so far, is churning out runs. Catcher Ui-ji Yang is a superstar: he put up a 1.012 OPS last season. Sung-Bum Na, with a career .918 OPS in his eighth season, is a sort of Carlos Delgado-like figure: the power dormant in his swing emanates through the park when he stands in the batter’s box.
Third baseman Sok-min Park is an on-base machine. His career OBP is .403, and he’s hit 245 career home runs. Leadoff hitter and second baseman Min-Woo Park batted .344 last season, and in the win against the Lions, had three hits. Shortstop Jin-Hyuk No put up a .780 OPS last season with 13 home runs, and against the Lions, he added another. It was an opposite-field shot; an absolute no-doubter. The Dinos hit 128 home runs last season, leading the KBO.
And of course, bizarrely in the middle of all of this, is Aaron Altherr, former .129 hitter for the Mets. Altherr is one of the Dinos’ newest additions, and on Wednesday knocked his first two KBO hits, including a monstrous home run. It’s strange, finding a new team on a new continent to watch and seeing Aaron Altherr. It’s like going to an underground club for a concert of promising new unknown acts, with special guest Lionel Richie. But if Altherr can help the Dinos win a championship, I won’t say another word against him.
Can the Dinos keep up the winning? It’s impossible to say. Too often, the Mets have looked good out of the gate, and then fallen apart all too quickly. 2018, 2017, 2014, 2012…it always happens, and yet, every year, it seems different. This year they look better. This year the hot start is real.
We’ll see what the Dinos’ record looks like at season’s end. But we also know what their lineup can do, and we saw just how good Chang-mo Koo looked against the Lions. We even saw what Aaron Altherr can do for the Dinos against KBO pitching. I say it too often, but a few games in, I like their chances.