The Giants just signed Jae-gyun Hwang, and while we can wish that he’d packed his bat flips on the plane ride across the Pacific, it’s generally very exciting that he’s going to be here. But what can we expect from Hwang?
It seems the best way to start calibrating our expectations is to look at other hitters who have come to the majors from the KBO. The three who were in the majors last year were Jung Ho Kang of the Pirates, Hyun Soo Kim of the Orioles, and Byung Ho Park of the Twins. Each of them came to America at a roughly similar age as Hwang will be (he turns 30 in July). Kang became a star in 2015 and Kim did a very nice job as a platoon player last year, while Park, after a hot April, struggled in 2016, eventually getting sent to AAA at the beginning of July.
First things first. Just quick and dirty, by batting average and OPS, how did each of them perform in Korea?
Fantastic. You can see they all had generally positive trends. Hwang, Kang, and Kim were always relatively high average guys, with Park figuring out that aspect of his game a little later. In terms of OPS, Park steadily improved starting from his age 23 season, Hwang from his age 24 season, and Kang started to really take off in his age 24 season. Kim started out hot, had a bit of a dip in his mid-20s, and then rebounded nicely for several years before coming over to America.
What about power? We’ve all heard about Hwang’s power, mostly in the context of his bat flips, but how does he stack up with the other guys who have come over? Let’s look at their isolated slugging and PA/HR numbers.
Just like with both average and OPS, when it comes to ISO, Hwang’s best comp is still clearly Kim, as they track incredibly well for most of their respective twenties. Kang was always a little more of a power hitter, which really became apparent in the career year he had before leaving the KBO, and Park was a pure power guy.
You can see, though, that in the PA/HR graph, in terms of home run power, Hwang grades out worse than any of the rest. It’s not by a lot, and it’s a problem that he was starting to rectify in his last couple years there, but he simply wasn’t as much of a power hitter as the others. Hitting a homer every 20 PAs isn’t bad, and that’s what he was doing by the end, but it also means that we shouldn’t expect his power to be in the same league as Kang and especially Park.
The one other thing that has been reported about Hwang has been his focus last year on knocking down his strikeout rate. Let’s look at that:
Hwang did, in fact, cut down on his strikeouts pretty drastically, matching (slightly bettering, actually) the best season in terms of strikeouts that Kang ever had. This is some good news, really. The strikeout problems that made Park, despite his great power, not a major league quality hitter last year aren’t anywhere to be seen with Hwang. Even before he started working on his swing, his strikeout numbers were still roughly equivalent to Kang’s; if last year is an indication of where he’s at now, he’ll do a better job of making contact than Kang.
In terms of scouting, we have to rely on a few disparate sources. This article from Today’s Knuckleball has lots of information about Hwang, including a gif of him hitting a 96 mile an hour fastball 476 feet (good!) while not flipping his bat (dammit).
Here’s the positive about him as a hitter:
The scout went on to mention, “one thing that stands out is Hwang’s ability to hit high-velocity fastballs… I’ve noticed that he has no problem squaring up against 95+.”
So basically he’s Playoff Conor Gillaspie.
And here’s the negative:
A major drawback in Hwang’s hitting, however, is his pitch selection skill. While his improved swing in 2016 has helped with his pitch selection, he will need to improve further to consistently fair against MLB pitching.
So basically he’s Nate Schierholtz, unless he’s Aaron Rowand.
How is he defensively?
On the defensive side of the ball, he’s been an average defender at third-base in the KBO. His lateral range is a bit limited, and he could improve on his footwork. Part of that could be blamed on defensive alignments and a different philosophy on fielding ground balls. In Asia, infielders are generally taught to sit back on ground balls, while in the U.S., it is usually the opposite.
Nevertheless, the footwork will need to be cleaned up for him to provide consistent defensive value at the hot corner. As for his arm, one scout told me, “He probably has the strongest arm out of any infielder coming out of Korea.”
Basically he has the arm of Pedro Feliz, so let’s all think about Pedro Feliz!
(No, let’s not think about Pedro Feliz)
There’s more in that article, so go read it, but the general conclusion is this, coming from an unnamed scout:
Hwang has raw power, a big arm and an average runner — all solid MLB tools you look for in complete players. But his approach is less advanced, his footwork needs work, and his base-running instincts are below ML-average.
So what can we expect from Jae-gyun Hwang? The best case scenario we can realistically expect is that he’ll be a hybrid between Kim and Kang, someone who hits for decent power with a good average, without being a world-beater in either category. Stirkeouts shouldn’t be a huge problem either.
But he could still use some work. As much as we’re penciling Hwang in for a spot on the big league roster, it’s entirely possible he spends some time in Sacramento acclimating to American baseball. That would be a good place for him to work on his approach and the culture shock, so if he’s not clearly ready in Spring Training, which from that scout’s perspective does seem possible, it wouldn’t be a shock for him to wind up in AAA.
Welcome to the Giants, Jae-gyun Hwang. We would be very happy to see you do well.