Hwang hopes to impress Giants, crack major league roster
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) The language is Korean, but a home run call is universal. And after a few replays, the last one on the YouTube video zooms in on Jae-gyun Hwang, standing at home plate with his bat in the air, admiring the long ball he pulled around the left field pole.
He leans to one side, as if to coax the ball fair. He flips his bat high in the air and begins his trot around the bases.
The video of the former star of South Korea’s Lotte Giants has more than 317,000 views. Now that Hwang is at spring training with the San Francisco Giants after agreeing to a minor league contract, the 29-year-old knows preening and bat-flipping is discouraged by many in Major League Baseball’s culture.
”What I’m really curious about is facing the best of the major league pitchers and see and feel their pitches first hand,” Hwang said through interpreter Mark Kim before Thursday’s workout. ”Up until 2015, I was very expressive, because obviously in Korea there’s nothing against batters doing the bat flip. But when I was interacting with my colleagues that had played in the major leagues, they told me about what kind of an effect it can have in the states with the pitchers here. So I definitely stopped.”
The video is from 2015. Hwang said he didn’t flip his bat for any of the 27 home runs he hit last season.
”He initially wasn’t sure it was going to be possible,” Hwang’s agent, Han Lee, said of when he told Hwang he had to stop the gesture. ”Then he tried it and it wasn’t a big deal.”
Hwang, who would get a $1.5 million, one-year contract if added to the 40-man roster, will get a look mainly at third base but also has an outfielder’s and first baseman’s glove. The Giants have Eduardo Nunez set for third base, so Hwang’s big league role figures to be as a utility player.
The Giants also have experienced major-leaguers in Conor Gillaspie, Jimmy Rollins, Gordon Beckham and Kelby Tomlinson who can play various infield positions.
”I’ve been basically practicing for every other position there is,” Hwang said.
The Giants will also get a long look at Hwang’s swing. He’s a six-time KBO All-Star who won the league’s home run derby in 2015, then followed that season up with a .335 batting average and 113 RBIs in 127 games in 2016. He’s the first Korean-born player in Lotte Giants history to post a 20-20 season that included 25 stolen bases, and he cut down on his strikeouts from 122 to 66 from 2015 to 2016.
Hwang said the San Francisco Giants are well known in Korea. He chose to sign with them because they showed so much interest, and he liked the teamwork the Giants displayed in winning three recent World Series titles. Former Giant Ryan Sadowski, now a scout who helps players transition to baseball between Korea and the U.S., also offered his input on the Giants organization.
Sadowski and Hwang were Lotte Giants teammates.
”I had a keen interest in getting to know the players before I got here,” Hwang said. ”Ever since I was little, it was my dream to be able to play in the major leagues. When the opportunity came, I had to seize it.”
Hwang has been in the U.S. since last month, working out with his former team, Lotte, which is training at the Seattle Mariners’ spring training facility in nearby Peoria.
If Hwang doesn’t make the Giants out of camp, he can opt out of his contact, Lee said. But Hwang seems accepting of the idea of starting the season in the minors.
”It’s pretty impressive the numbers he’s put up there in Korea,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. ”There’s a number of players that have come over here and done well. You see with your eyes, he’s a got a great swing and a swing that will work.”
NOTES: RHP Johnny Cueto has yet to report to spring training as he deals with a family matter in the Dominican Republic. … Pitcher Javier Lopez, who retired just before spring training, is in camp helping as a guest instructor. ”He’s so well-respected and appreciated by his teammates, and they’re glad to see him,” Bochy said. ”This will be good for Javy, too. It’s never easy that first year you decide to step away.”