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.