Taiwanese baseball is going to be the only gig in town for much of this summer so it’s time to get across it, so John’s back with an update to his guide from 2018
Yes, you heard right, the Chinese Professional Baseball League, or CPBL for short, has a storied history on the baseball mad island of Taiwan.
The current iteration of the CPBL has four teams; the Taipei City based Fubon Guardians, the reigning champion Rakuten Monkeys, the Chinatrust Brothers Elephants and, from Taiwan’s southernmost city of Tainan, the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions.
The league is at its smallest in sometime following a mid-2000s game-fixing scandal, but there are plans to expand to five teams in 2021, with a return for the long dormant Wei-Chuan Dragons who’ll be part of this year’s farm league. As in other Asian markets, the clubs are an extension of the country’s big companies and act as a relatively cheap way for them to gain media exposure (Fubon and Chinatrust are banks, 7-Eleven are grocery stores and Rakuten is the same conglomerate who own the NPB’s Eagles. The Monkeys previous owners, Lamigo, made shoes and it’s a shame that homespun detail is no longer there).
Each team has three imports. These are usually starting pitchers as the Taiwanese have struggled to develop this position, and their best bets – including Marlins pitcher Wei-Yin Chen the Twins, Rays and Cubs reliever Chih-Wei Hu and former KBO opening day starter Wei-Chung Wang – have been snaffled by MLB clubs. Likewise, much of Taiwan’s elite young talent find their way to the MLB via the international signing process – Yu Chang and Tzu-Wei Lin are two such players who turned out for the Indians and Red Sox last season, whilst the Indians AAA catcher Giljegiljaw Kungekuan is one of many players of Taiwanese Aboriginal descent who chooses to go by his ‘native’ rather than Taiwanese name.
The aforementioned Wang is currently a free agent and has been seen training with CPBL outfit the Rakuten Monkeys in the off-season – he may see this year’s competition as a way to keep trim as others workout from home.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably waiting for an answer to the question – ‘MLB is so good, and it takes so long, and there’s so much time, so why should I even bother?’. Well, it’s the only baseball on, but there are a few other good reasons here…
The Baseball is Good
Feels like a given, right? And it is. The standard in the CPBL is often described uncharitably as AA level. As a loose ballpark, this just about fits, but hides the fact that the best players (and there are plenty) would probably make an MLB roster, and that all players are capable of standout play.
The difference in quality is most easily seen on the defensive side of the ball, where the odd bloop drops between fielders, grounders are fumbled and the bullpen’s fourth and fifth arms serve up meaty BP fastballs that the league’s sluggers feast on.
The point is that this actually makes the games exciting – there are loads of runs, and the style is contact heavy and aggressive. It doesn’t mirror the patient, ‘base by base’ approach favoured in Japan, either – the CPBL is full of free swingers ready to punish a sloppy piece of fielding or free pass.
The Atmosphere is Infectious
Like most Asian baseball, the CPBL is the land of cheering squads, colourful stadiums and team songs. At first this feels grating, but before long you’re singing along to the Monkeys chants (and waking up in the middle of the night with them as an ear worm). Even though the plan is for ‘behind closed doors’ games, the suggestion is that the chants will remain in a socially distanced format – certainly going to be worth keeping an eye on…
There are Four Teams
Right. It isn’t hard to keep up to speed with four teams, even when the broadcasts are in an unfamiliar language (though a strike is still a strike, a double play a double play, and a home run a home run). You don’t need to know who the Cincinnati Reds third best offensive player is. The CPBL is a blagger’s dream.
It is really easy to access
All games are broadcast on CPBLTV, with a large number also streamed for free on the clubs’ own sites. The brilliant CPBL Stats site tracks the numbers in English, and has this great guide to setting up streaming. That’ll set you back the princely sum of £24/$30 for a whole year for all 240 fixtures. Bargain.
Oh and the games are at 10 and 11 o’clock in the morning UK time, so you can watch them with your Saturday morning coffee…
Oh, look at these fonts lads…
Who’s my team?
As noted above, there are four teams to choose from, so pick your favourite font… Just kidding, here’s a quick intro to the four clubs:
The Brothers (formerly the Brothers Elephants) play their games around Taiwan, mostly in Taichung and Kaohsiung. They’re arguably the most storied of the four current clubs, having existed as the Elephants since 1990. They’ve won just one Taiwan Series since the league rebooted in 2004, but are a perennial playoff club, and last year’s runners-up. Oh, and they play in pyjamas, so if you’re a T20 fan, they’re your team.
The Brothers’ star player, and Taiwan’s best-paid and best-known, is infielder Lin Chih-Sheng. Lin is a mega star and multiple league MVP, he got back into the box last year following a couple of years riding the pine and with the farm team following disagreements with his last two managers, the abrasive former Dodgers star, Cory Snyder and his successor Scott Budner.
Their pitching standout is their closer, the former Indians reliever C.C. Lee, whose wipeout slider is one of the best pitches in the league.
The Brothers have been the big spenders of the off-season, smashing previous CPBL salary records to bring in former big leaguers and NPB and KBO standouts in Ariel Miranda and Esmil Rogers to support the returning Mitch Lively.
Miranda was with the Mariners as recently as 2018 and had a solid year in 2019 with the Hwaks of NPB. Rogers is a more mercurial talent, having seen MLB time with the Yankees and shown flashes of brilliance in a couple of KBO tours. Lively is one of the league’s most reliable pitchers and a bit of a prankster who uses tricks in his wind-up (reminiscent of something from old-time baseball) to keep hitters guessing.
— CPBL STATS (@GOCPBL) March 28, 2018
The Guardians are CPBL’s newest club, with the franchise taking over from the EDA Rhinos to finish dead last in their first season in 2017. The club spent big in the off-season as they have every year, retaining club ace Mike Loree (the CPBL’s answer to Greg Maddux or Jacob DeGom) and re-adding last year’s first half breakthrough ace Henry Sosa who was laughably dominant before heading to the KBO mid-season. Their biggest signing, though, was the Monkeys four times title winning manager Hong I-Chung whose impassive face hides the mind of a baseball genius. For all their high rolling the Guardians have yet to make a Taiwan Series – they’ll be hoping this is their year.
First baseman Lin Yi-Chuan is the second highest paid player in CPBL and a three-time league MVP. He’s backed by a battery of players with experience in MLB systems, including DH Hu Chin-Lung, left fielder Kao Kuo-Hui and relievers Ni Fu-Te and Kuo Hong-Chih.
The Guardians’ overseas roster for 2020 is one the CPBL’s best ever. Mike Loree is back for a sixth year following another year as the CPBL’s Mr Consistency on the mound. Bryan Woodall, he of the ‘funky’ delivery (which is somewhat reminiscent of a budget Max Scherzer), and eye-watering 0.47 ERA over 13 starts with the Lancaster Barnstormers in Indy Ball’s the Atlantic League, in 2016 must make do with starting the year on the farm as Sosa and former Yankees farmhand Ryan Bollinger take his place in the rotation. Bollinger spent the second half of last season with the team and stepped up to the level well, pitching to an ERA of around 4.50, which is excellent in an offence first league.
Sosa will hope to repeat the form which allowed for a 1.57 ERA and a SO/9 approaching 10 in 2019. Here he is blowing good hitters away…
— CPBL STATS (@GOCPBL) March 24, 2019
Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions
Based in Tainan, the ‘Uni Lions’, were a founder club of the CPBL and have won more Taiwan Series than any other (eight). Recent seasons have been something of a famine, with their last laurels coming in 2013. The club has an ardent British fan, Tom Chapel, a Tainan based English teacher who appeared on Taiwanese TV to explain his fandom.
The Lions are the only team for whom the star is a Taiwanese pitcher, Pan Wei-Lun. Their other star is also a Pan – Pan Wu-Hsiung is a big hitting DH. Occasional first baseman Teng Chih-Wei is one of the best stories in CPBL; profoundly deaf since childhood, he’s one of the most recognisable players in the game and has a cult following despite only brief forays onto the field.
The stalwart of the Lions rotation is Josh Roenicke who has seen time in over 60 MLB games with a handful of clubs and is back for a fourth year in Taiwan following an injury hit 2019. Ryan Verdugo isn’t back this year despite his exploits throwing the league’s first ever perfect game in 2018.
Replacing Verdugo are former big leaguers Donn Roach and that rare baseball unicorn, left-handed knuckleballer Ryan Feieraband, who made a couple of starts for the 2019 Toronto Blue Jays. Feieraband is a known entity in Asia, having success in the KBO, whilst Roach steps over from the NPB but his signing has been questioned by those who think an extreme fly ball pitcher will be poorly suited to the league.
The four years reigning Taiwan Series champions, the now Rakuten Monkeys are also a relatively new club having taken the place of the Kaohsiung based La New Bears in 2011. The Monkeys 2017 and 2018 success came on the back of solid pitching, and the talents of young phenom Wang Po-Jung who joined the NPB that offseason. His mantle was picked up by young catcher Liao Chien-Fu, who slashed an incredible 387/.462/.575 in his 2018 rookie season and kept it rolling last year.
The Monkeys have a new look and a new mascot, you can help them name him here.
Liao vies with second baseman Kuo Yen-Wen and first baseman Chen Chun-Hsiu vie with Wang for the fans’ affections, but fight a losing battle. Both members of past Taiwanese national teams, they show that the lineup has some depth. Closer Chen Yu-Hsun is the league’s best paid reliever and one of its more colourful characters.
Rakuten had hoped to bring back last year’s ace Radhames Liz, the former Orioles and Pirates flamethrower, but his return was paused by the global health crisis. In his place will be former Brothers pitcher Elih Villanueva, who pitched the CPBL’s ninth no-hitter in the same week as Verdugo’s perfect game. He’s joined by former Detroit Tiger Ryan Carpenter and Justin Nicolino, who was a top 50 prospect during his time with Blue Jays and Marlins. Lisalverto Bonilla joins the club fresh from the Dominican Winter with Licey, but will probably start on the farm.
Villanueva makes history with a no-no:
— CPBL STATS (@GOCPBL) September 28, 2018
CPBL Stats is the essential resource for the English fan – up to date numbers and brilliant ‘How To’ guides in our lingua franca. Also has a great Twitter account with clips and gifs of today’s top plays.
A number of former CPBL players are active on baseball Twitter and worth a follow to see their view on the league. Among them Rick Teasley Scott Richmond, Peter Moylan and Bruce Billings Jr give great perspectives in and outside the game.