Giants sign Korean third baseman, Jae-gyu Hwang

Per Andrew Baggarly:

The club has agreed to terms with Korean infielder Jae-gyun Hwang on a minor league contract that includes an invitation to major league spring training.

Baggarly goes on to note that Hwang’s contract is for $1.5M if he makes the major league roster and he will be invited to spring training. Hwang, 29, is coming off a .330/.391/.558 season for the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). He hit 22 doubles, 3 triples, 26 home runs, and walked 47 times to 64 strikeouts. That’s all fine and dandy, but this is the part where I tell you much of a crazy hitters league the KBO is.

Consider the following:

  • Hwang’s .949 OPS placed him as the 19th best hitter in the KBO.
  • The KBO had six (six!) hitters with an OPS of 1.000 or greater. The majors had one (David Ortiz) in 2016.
  • Among all types of professional and independent baseball leagues, it’s hard to find a league that’s more offense-friendly than the KBO.

League context matters a good bit.

And while Hwang’s spike in power is at least quasi-interesting, it appears more to be a reflection in the changes in the KBO’s high octane run-scoring. Consider this additional line graph of home runs per game in the KBO from 2010-2016.

In 2016, the KBO averaged 1.04 home runs per game; for comparison in 1999 the average home runs per game in MLB was an even more ridiculous 1.14 per game. Ex-Giant, and former KBO pitcher, Ryan Sadowski, actually wrote a little bit about his time in the KBO. It’s a good read for a guy that pitched in both the majors and the KBO for three years. (He talks about the changes in the ball and the decision to let more foreign-born players in the league as potential reasons for the influx of offense.)

So, this is all a long winded way of saying that you really can’t take KBO numbers at face value. As always, league context applies heavily. I am sure there are smarter people out there that have worked on translations between the leagues, and it would be very interesting to see. Hwang joins more Korean players as they make their way to the majors. The good news for Hwang and the Giants is that there really is no risk here. Hwang is young enough at 29 to not be too far past the 27-28 peak for ballplayers. Also, from what I can find, his defense seems passable. You really can’t write about Hwang and not bring up this legendary bat flip. Dude has 80-grade bat flip ability.

It’s likely that he’ll be more of a bench piece/non-factor, but kudos to the Giants for being creative in trying to fill a team need. He’s going to be a spring training storyline that’s actually worth following.

Hunter Pence’s hidden skill

Despite appearances, Hunter Pence has been a well above average player since he debuted in 2007 with the Houston Astros. Since 2007, Pence has averaged 3.2 wins above replacement (Fangraphs method) per season. If you prorate his WAR to 162 games — he’s played just 52 and 106 games over the past two seasons — you arrive at 3.8 WAR per 162 games played. Pence does it by being a well rounded player; he’s posted positive run totals over his career in hitting (141.4 runs), fielding (33.4), and base running (7.1).

This is nothing new, of course, but what else does the current San Francisco Giants right fielder bring to the table that might go unnoticed? The ability to get hits on infield balls in play. Consider the following table — it’s raw infield hit totals since 2007.

Infield Hit Totals, 2007-2016

Name G IFH
Ichiro Suzuki 1543 335
Hunter Pence 1376 219
Dustin Pedroia 1367 198
Derek Jeter 1068 187
Adam Jones 1362 182
Alexei Ramirez 1371 177
Ryan Braun 1354 175
Michael Bourn 1344 169
Elvis Andrus 1221 167
Erick Aybar 1312 160

When looking at Pence, only the masterful Ichiro has had more infield hits since 2007. While Ichiro’s infield hit totals are staggering, Pence’s 219 infield hits are the second most in the majors in this time frame and he is the only other player to break the 200-hit mark.

It’s clear that both Pence and Ichiro posses an infield hit skill. Ichiro’s historic bat control, speed, hitting stance, and left-handedness make him a prime candidate to rack up infield hits. Often times when Ichiro makes contact with the ball, he’s already moving out of the box. Pence, however, is a right handed hitter and thus has to take a couple of extra steps to get out of the box and head toward first base.

You’ll note that since we are just looking at raw totals, Ichiro has an obvious games played advantage — he appeared in nearly 200 more games than Pence over this time period. If we adjust the infield hit totals per game, and then prorate that to a 162 game season, we get the following table.

Infield Hit Totals Per 162 games adjusted, 2007-2016

Name G IFH IFH/G IFH/162
Ichiro Suzuki 1543 335 0.22 35
Derek Jeter 1068 187 0.18 28
Hunter Pence 1376 219 0.16 26
Dustin Pedroia 1367 198 0.14 23
Elvis Andrus 1221 167 0.14 22
Adam Jones 1362 182 0.13 22
Ryan Braun 1354 175 0.13 21
Alexei Ramirez 1371 177 0.13 21
Michael Bourn 1344 169 0.13 20
Erick Aybar 1312 160 0.12 20

Ichiro, expectedly, keeps his title as the infield hit king. There’s a little jockeying when you adjust things (Jeter moves up to #2 and Pence falls to #3) but it’s still an interesting list.

The other question that I think we should ask is: Infield hits are obviously a good thing, but how much value does it add to the player? Using linear weights we can get a rough idea of how much value Pence is gaining from his annual 20-plus infield hits a year. I am using a simple equation based on  Tom Tango’s base run values. Essentially, a single, which all infield hits should be, are worth .46 runs. So, our basic equation is (IFH*.46 = run value). (I am open to debate on whether or not this is the best way to do this, but for now, it’s where I am headed.)

Doing so, we get the following table.

Infield Hit Total Run Values per 162 games adjusted, 2007-2016

Name G IFH IFH/G IFH/162 RV
Ichiro Suzuki 1543 335 0.22 35 16.3
Derek Jeter 1068 187 0.18 28 13.1
Hunter Pence 1376 219 0.16 26 11.9
Dustin Pedroia 1367 198 0.14 23 10.9
Elvis Andrus 1221 167 0.14 22 10.3
Adam Jones 1362 182 0.13 22 10.0
Ryan Braun 1354 175 0.13 21 9.7
Alexei Ramirez 1371 177 0.13 21 9.7
Michael Bourn 1344 169 0.13 20 9.4
Erick Aybar 1312 160 0.12 20 9.1

Per 162 games, Pence is adding nearly 12 runs of value. Thinking of it in terms of WAR, that’s one win of value based on just infield hits. That’s an amazing amount of value added. As stated above, Pence does nearly everything well, but if you took away his ability to reach base on infield hits, he moves from a four-win player to a three-win player; he would still be a worthwhile addition to the team, but not nearly as impactful.

It’s easy to say that’s the beauty of baseball — players excelling in weird and unexpected ways — but, honestly, that’s the beauty of baseball and one of the reasons why I love the game so much.

Giants add potential bench depth with newly signed trio

Per Baseball America’s Matt Eddy, the Giants have signed 1B Michael Morse, OF Justin Ruggiano, and C/1B Josmil Pinto to minor league deals.

Morse, who turns 35 in March, is well known to Giants fans for his successful one year run with the team in 2014. (Also, for this home run which resulted in me nearly jumping through the roof.) The Giant signed Morse to a one-year, $6M deal heading into 2014 and were rewarded with a .279/.336/.475 slash. In 2014, Morse appeared in 131 games for the Giants — the 2nd most games appeared for the slugger in his career. With Morse, that’s the rub; he’s normally hurt. However, what Morse does bring to the Giants is some sweet, sweet memories and the ability to really hit baseballs far. He’s a large human that, when healthy, is an above average hitter. Positionally, Morse is below average wherever he plays, but in a scenario with the Giants in which he made the team, he would fill the role of Huge Person That Hits Home Runs Off The Bench.

Ruggiano, who turns 35 in April, profiles, in some ways, like Michael Morse; he’s a talented ballplayer that has had issues staying healthy. He appeared in just nine games in 2016 due to shoulder and hamstring issues. Teams have been rewarded when Ruggiano has managed to stay on the field. His average WAR per 162 games played is a respectable 1.8 wins. He also fills a need on the Giants in that he crushes LHP (137 career wRC+). He’s played some centerfield in his career but these days he’s more of a left fielder.

Pinto, 28 in March, has appeared in the majors with the Twins and Brewers. In 286 career plate appearances in the majors, Pinto has hit well with a slash of .252/.336/.436 (116 wRC+). Pinto, like Morse and Ruggiano, is a right-handed hitter. You can listen to a scouting take from 2014 on Pinto. Short version: he’s a bat-first catcher. It’s an interesting pick-up for the Giants, but it’s unlikely he’ll see time at the major league level in 2017.

All three players should be viewed as bench options. Ruggiano is probably the most interesting player of the three. He’s a better defender than Morse and he hits LHP quite well which should be the main consideration for a bench position. Morse and Ruggiano both profile as talented but chronically injured players and, at 35 years old, both aren’t great bets to suddenly find good health. Pinto is interesting because of his age and former prospect pedigree. He’s a good addition, if unlikely to see any at-bats with the Giants in the upcoming year.

Depth signings aren’t sexy, but they are needed as teams look to fill out rosters at the upper levels. And, who knows, maybe we’ll see a couple of mashed dingers along the way.

Friday Graph: Matt Cain’s Release Point Over The Years

In early December, after the Giants inked Mark Melancon to a four year, $62 million dollar deal, GM Bobby Evans had an interesting quote on the state of the team’s payroll and offseason plans going forward:

“I don’t think there’s anything more to ask of ownership,” Evans said, referring to the payroll. “It’s really a matter of what I can do within what we have.”

And, the real thing that caught my eye:

“I’ve talked to Matt at length this winter and his expectation and commitment is to come in here and fight for that fifth spot,” Evans said Wednesday. “He believes he can come in and give us a significant number of innings.”

Matt Cain has largely been hurt and/or ineffective since 2013. 2012 was the last time Cain would be an above average pitcher (126 ERA+, 3.40 FIP, 3.7 WAR). Since that season, Cain has not topped 200 innings pitched and, because of injuries, in the last three years he has yet to break the 100 inning mark. Because of arm troubles, Cain largely moved away from the fastball — which has lost a few ticks since his earlier days — and instead relied on a lower vertical release point and his slider. I wrote about this a little in 2014 on McCovey Chronicles on this particular post.

Since then, has much changed with Cain’s release point?

Not much. Cain saw a slight uptick in his vertical release point this past season, but he is nowhere near his 2008-2010 levels. If you look at the graph on a yearly average (pictured below), you can see a very slight upward movement on Cain’s release point, but nothing that I would say is significant.

A quick look at Cain’s pitch-type data on FanGraphs reveals that he’s still throwing the slider nearly a quarter of the time (25.4 percent in 2016) as he has continued to back away from his fastball.

While the Giants will surely give Cain every opportunity to compete and win the 5th starter job in spring training — Cain is owed $20.8M this season — it’s unlikely that Cain will be able to provide the Giants with much positive value. And, with Tyler Beede in the wings, it’s likely that Cain won’t be pitching much in the rotation past June. For all the credit the Giants get for making shrewd contract extensions on their homegrown players, the Cain extension, in hindsight, is probably one the team would rather pass on if it could do things again. Cain has indeed been a great Giant, and one of my personal favorites, but his age, injury history, and other indicators suggest that if the Giants are depending on great things from Cain in 2017, they are most likely going to be disappointed.

About that Brian Dozier rumor …

Jon Heyman tweets, and the world listens:

“SFGIants like Dozier but he’s seen as “not a likely fit” for them, as they have Panik. Dodgers still viewed as favorite.”

Giants like Brian Dozier. I like ice cream. Alert the presses.

Dozier, who is coming off a monster 2016 campaign, is a personal favorite of mine — and obviously a lot of other teams looking to upgrade at second base. Dozier’s 5.9 wins above replacement (FanGraphs method) last season would have ranked first on the Giants (just beating out Brandon Crawford’s 5.8 WAR). Since 2013, Dozier has been worth 2.5, 4.7, 3.3, and 5.9 WAR. He’s an obviously excellent ballplayer that would fit well on any team.

However, the Giants seem like an odd duck match for Dozier’s services.

* Joe Panik already exists and is a thing

I am not sure where the Giants would play Dozier if they did acquire him. Dozier has played 5,000-plus innings in the field at second and other than the time he briefly spent at shortstop in 2012, he’s never played anywhere else at the major league level. Looking at the defensive data, Dozier appears to be an average defender. UZR has him at -4.4 runs over his career at second; DRS has him at +7 runs; and the Fan Scouting Report has him at +4 runs.

Joe Panik, by comparison, is an excellent defender at second. UZR has Panik at +13.7 runs over his career on defense; DRS has him at +4 runs and FSR at +7 runs. You’d probably be willing, all things considered, to give Joe Panik a half-win on defense on Dozier over the course of a full season. Panik might not be the 136 wRC+ batter he was in 2015 going forward, but he’s an average hitter — with the potential for a little more — who isn’t going to cost much.

Which brings us back to just exactly where Dozier would play? I don’t see the Giants moving Panik to left field to let Dozier man second base; would Dozier be open to playing LF? How would he translate on defense to LF? The defensive spectrum tells us that playing LF is easier than 2B, so it’s not crazy to think that Dozier would be a fine LF given time and practice, but it’s still a weird notion.

* The Giants don’t have the right amount of prospect capital

The Giants just don’t have the prospects to acquire a player like Dozier. While the farm system seems to be on a slight upswing, it’s still a bottom third system and the top prospects — guys like Tyler Beede — the Giants will most likely need sooner rather than later. It’s hard to see any scenario where A) The Twins really make Dozier available and B) the Giants have enough in the way of prospects to make a deal happen.

* Dozier would fill a need in the lefty-hitting department

As Grant Brisbee mentioned in this post, the Giants are going to have real problems hitting left-handed pitching in the upcoming season. The lineup is largely slanted towards left-handed batters. Posey and Pence should do well against LHP, but outside of that, it’s not exactly a pretty sight. Dozier would instantly give the Giants a guy that really whomps on lefties. Dozier’s career wRC+ against LHP is a robust 131. Having Dozier, Posey, and Pence all in the same lineup against southpaws would help mitigate the lefty-heavy nature of the lineup.

Brian Dozier is a really good baseball player. The Giants would be a better team with him on it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a thing that is going to happen. In fact, it’s really hard to see how it would even occur — current team makeup, prospects needed to trade for Dozier, etc. Maybe in an alternate reality. Like most baseball trade rumors in December it’s nice to think about for a few fleeting seconds, but, yeah, probably not actually going to happen.