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.

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.