Eric Hacker Still Feels the KBO’s Pull

On Tuesday morning in Southlake, Texas, a Dallas suburb nearly 7,000 miles away from Changwon, South Korea, Eric Hacker 해커 celebrated the NC Dinos’ Sok Min Park 박석민’s game-winning home run against the KT Wiz. “Walk off by the most interesting teammate I have ever played with,” he tweeted. “#18 Awesome teammate and most definitely has his own style.”

Park’s home run, his second of the game and third of the young KBO season, capped an impressive comeback. Down 6-3 in the eighth inning against the Wiz, the Dinos’ star third baseman hit a solo shot to trim the lead to 6-4. In the ninth inning, with the Dinos down to their final strike, designated hitter Sung-bum Na 나성범 launched a 425-foot two-run homer to tie the game, setting up Park’s walk-off shot. The win lifted the Dinos — arguably the league’s most entertaining team for the flair players like Park, Na, catcher Euiji Yang 양의지 and others bring to the game — to 5-1. At this writing they’re a KBO-best 7-1, one game ahead of the resurgent Lotte Giants.

Hacker, now 37 years old and selling residential real estate in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, spent 2013-17 as a rotation mainstay for the Dinos, starting from the time they joined the KBO as an expansion team. He helped the team to postseason appearances in the last four of those seasons, including a trip to the best-of-seven championship Korean Series in 2016, when the team was swept by the powerhouse Doosan Bears. Including a half-season spent with the Nexen Heroes (now the Kiwoom Heroes) in 2018, he ranked second only to the KIA Tigers’ Hyeon-Jong Yang, the league’s 2017 MVP, in pitching WAR (24.1, all advanced stats via Statiz), and fifth in innings (935.1).

Hacker played with Na during his entire run with the Dinos, and with Park for the last two of those seasons, after he signed as a free agent following a 10-year run with the Samsung Lions. When I talked to him on Wednesday, he spoke glowingly of both former teammates. He described the 30-year-old Na, “probably one of my best friends over there,” as a five-tool player with a big arm in the outfield as well as excellent speed — at least before a gruesome right knee injury cost him not only most of the 2019 season but the opportunity to be posted this past winter. “He’s a physical freak when it comes to the way he’s built,” said Hacker. “He wants to be the best and he works that way, and he’s preparing himself for the major leagues. He’s been working on it for years, spending time with his English and stuff so if he gets that opportunity, he can communicate.”

As for the 34-year-old Park, his comedic moments on the field have become social media fodder, much as those of Adrián Beltré did in his later years with the Rangers. “That’s a great comparison,” said Hacker when offered it. “I think maybe a difference between Beltré and Park is Beltré was loved by everybody, and I would say Suk Min is loved by everybody once everybody knows him. When I played against him before he was my teammate with NC, you would see these crazy things, that if you didn’t know anything about the guy you’d be like, ‘Seriously, what’s this goofy guy doing showing me up?’ He’s spinning and doing all these crazy things. But then the more you get to know him, the more you see him play the game, that’s just the way he plays and I don’t know how he does it. He does it well, and it’s just so interesting.”

For Hacker, who headed to the KBO after 11 often frustrating years in the organizations of the Yankees, Pirates, Twins, and Giants, forging relationships such as the ones he has with Na and Park, bridging the gap between cultures, was an important part of his time in South Korea. “A lot of guys will come in and see things happen and they’ll say, ‘Man, that’s weird. That’s strange.’ It’s amazing just changing your terminology and saying ‘It’s different, they’re different than us, they were raised differently, they think differently, they eat differently,” he said. “If you stay a lot more open minded with them, your relationships really grow.”

Unlike fellow ex-major leaguer Josh Lindbom, who along with three other American players went through a “a mini Korean assimilation” put together by agent Han Lee when he joined the Lotte Giants in 2015, Hacker was less prepared when thrust into a situation where he was the only foreign-born player on a brand new team. “My experience over there was as a bit of a guinea pig,” he said. “They were learning from me, and I was learning from them on the go and the system got better over time. I was very open and I would say, this is helpful, this is helpful, this is helpful. My wife had a baby over there, so we really dove into that culture, we’re all in, we’re gonna raise our family here. And so I tried to help the new foreign players who would come in, do everything I could to make those guys feel comfortable.”

Among the foreign-born players who joined the Dinos were first basemen Eric Thames 테임즈 (who hit 124 home runs for the team from 2014-16 while putting up video game-like numbers in the hitter-friendly league) and Xavier Scruggs 스크럭스 , and pitchers Thad Weber 웨버, Zack Stewart, and Charlie Shirek — players who, if they’d gotten to play in Major League Baseball before heading to the KBO, it wasn’t for long.

That description certainly fits Hacker, whose major league resumé is just seven games long — seven games and a whole lot of frustration as the odd man out even once his health issues cleared up. A 23rd-round 2002 draft pick out of Duncanville (Texas) High School by the Yankees, he pitched well in the low minors, but struggled to stay on the field, throwing just 103 innings in his first five professional seasons while missing all of 2004 due to Tommy John surgery, part of ’05 due to shoulder inflammation, and all of ’06 due to labrum surgery. The arm troubles took a toll on his stuff at a time when the Yankees’ player development system produced Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy. Though he was added to the 40-man roster after the 2008 season, he got lost in a roster shuffle and was traded to the Pirates for Romulo Sanchez on May 16, 2009. Called up that September, he made just three appearances for a team that lost 99 games.

Reading the handwriting on the wall, Hacker elected free agency after the 2009 season, landed with the Giants (the San Francisco ones), and spent all of 2010 pitching for their Triple-A Fresno team, briefly alongside Madison Bumgarner. Though he was considered the next man up in case of an injury, the Giants’ five-man rotation remained intact for the remainder of the season, with nobody missing a single turn. A free agent at season’s end, he was quickly signed to a major league deal by the Twins, one that raised eyebrows at FanGraphs, where Marc Hulet described him as “fall[ing] in the realm of ‘great results but lacks great stuff’ … the right-hander now relies on command/control and the ground ball (58 GB% in High-A).”

For the fanfare that greeted his signing, Hacker made just two April appearances for the team, and got cuffed for a 6.10 ERA at Triple-A Rochester. On the move again, he re-signed with the Giants and spent another season at Fresno, though in the wake of an April doubleheader, he did get called up for a spot start to give Tim Lincecum an extra day of rest. In his lone major league start, he went six innings against the Padres, allowing eight hits and three runs while striking out seven and walking two. “I lost but I pitched well,” recalled Hacker, who went back to Fresno but returned later in the year as a reliever, a role with which he was unfamiliar. “The bullpen was foreign to me because I had just never done it,” he said. “I’ve never had spent the time to get acclimated and transition into the bullpen for my stuff and my mentality.” As with the 2010 team, the ’12 Giants had an ultra-stable rotation; Hacker’s start was one of two not made by the font five of Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito, and Linceum. He did get a World Series ring for his trouble, and calls the second-go round with the Giants “a special part of my career that led into getting an opportunity to go to Korea.”

Hacker had been approached by Japanese teams but didn’t know much about the KBO other than conversing with their scouts at minor league games while he sat in the stands charting pitches. Conversations progressed, and he joined the Dinos, who began their spring training in Arizona, then went to Taiwan. “I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I knew I was getting to play baseball,” he said. “And it was an opportunity for myself to bring some financial backing to my family, because I had not made much in my career at that point.” According to Hacker, the most money he made in a season in the States was “low six figures.” By comparison, he made $1 million in 2017, his final season with the Dinos.

Hacker got off to a rocky start: “Once I got to Korea there were some things that weren’t quite what I was expecting, on the field and off the field, and I struggled. My first month I think I had like a 7.00 ERA and my wife was pregnant!” He recalls the expansion Dinos, who went 52-72-4 in their inaugural season, as “young and raw [with] a lot of players that you probably wouldn’t even see on the field today in the KBO.” He pitched to a 3.63 ERA and a 118 ERA+ — both seventh in the league — but went 4-11 due to a lack of support from his offense and his bullpen.

Hacker improved to 8-8 with a 4.07 ERA (128 ERA+) for a team that went 70-57-1 en route to a fourth-place finish in 2014, though he says his compensation lagged due to the team’s focus on his won-loss record. His big breakout came in 2015, when he won a league-high 19 games (against five losses), placed second in innings (204, six behind Lindblom), ERA (3.13), and ERA+ (153 ERA+), and third in WAR (5.6) for a team that finished second at 84-57-3 before bowing in the KBO Playoff, the best-of-five semifinal round. He trimmed his walk rate from 8.3% in 2014 to 4.3% (third in the league) in ’15, while his strikeout rate grew from 15.0% to 19.7%. He was officially recognized as the league’s top pitcher with the Golden Glove Award, awarded to the best player at each position (the Choi Dong-won Award, previously compared to the Cy Young in this space, is considered unofficial).

For Hacker, the breakout owed something to his adding a split-fingered fastball to his low-90s fastball/curve/slider arsenal, as well as a more “all-in” mindset to help overcome the culture gap. “I’ll take the ball when they give me the ball, if they want me to throw 120 pitches, I’ll throw 120 pitches, if I need to pitch on short rest, I’ll pitch on short rest. Really anything they asked me to do, I was a yes man. And it was a domino effect from there,” he said. “I just took all those emotions out of it, said, basically, ‘Treat me like you’re gonna treat the Korean guys,’ because the way those guys are treated is, you just do what you’re told, you don’t question it. And in the U.S., American [players], we’re a little more spoiled, where we have a little more of an opinion. In their culture, you don’t really get an opinion.”

Technology and data also helped Hacker. He learned about spin rate, and was able to use an iPad app that NCSoft, the team’s owners, developed that allowed him to call up videos against each player. “I could say, ‘Eric Hacker versus Dae-ho [Lee] for Lotte,’ and watch every time I faced Dae-ho. It was incredible, and so that’s how I got a lot of my study. Then I would take that and pull Dae-ho’s data about his hot and his cold, his batting average versus this pitch and this count. That’s how I learned to get guys out.” To Hacker, that’s a key difference separating top-tier leagues, KBO as well as MLB, from the U.S. minors. “You don’t get that [information] in the minor leagues. You’re facing the Fresno Grizzlies tomorrow night, and by the way, half of the Double-A team got moved up, and four guys came down from the big leagues, so you’re gonna face a lineup that didn’t play last night. You don’t even know who’s going to be here.”

Hacker’s development of a changeup and cutter fueled continued success; the latter helped him control the inside of the plate against lefties, inducing lots of weak contact. A deceptive delivery, with a hesitation in the middle, aided his KBO run — and caused controversy.

“They tried to pass a rule that my pitching delivery was illegal, and tried to get me to change it,” he said. “In spring training in 2014, I got pulled aside by our bench coach and he said, ‘We just want to inform you that you’re gonna have to change your pitching delivery this year. You can’t do it anymore. I’m like, are you serious? There’s a Korean guy on our team that almost pitches just like me.” The situation was ironed out when the Dinos met with the KBO and showed the consistency of his delivery. Even so, Doosan would always try to fluster Hacker, with players calling timeout in mid-delivery. One such incident in 2015 triggered a bench-clearing brawl in which a player in the Bears’ dugout threw a baseball at Hacker!

Hacker put together two more strong seasons for the Dinos, finishing among the top 10 in WAR and ERA in both years. In 2016, he helped the team to a second-place finish and a trip to the KBO Series, though they were swept by the Bears. He developed a reputation as a big-game pitcher, often starting Games 1 and 4 of a playoff series, and working on short rest. In 2017, after going 12-7 with a 3.42 ERA (145 ERA+) and 4.5 WAR, his Dinos crossed paths with Lindblom’s Lotte Giants in the best-of-five Semi-Playoffs, and the two pitchers squared off in the opener. Hacker allowed just one run in seven innings and was in line for the win, but a reliever allowed a solo homer to lead off the eighth; the Dinos erupted for seven runs in the 11th and won. Lindblom came back on short rest to win Game 4, but Hacker threw 6.1 shutout innings in a 9-0 rout in Game 5. Again, however, the Dinos fell to the Bears in the next round.

For all of his success, Hacker had missed time with an elbow injury in 2017, even going so far as to get an injection of platelet-rich plasma. The Dinos used that as an excuse to move in a different direction after the season, though he said he was healthy. KBO teams customarily don’t often sign free agent foreign players who have pitched for other teams, as it makes owners feel as though the considerable money they’re spending on international scouting is wasted, and so Hacker couldn’t immediately find a job. He went home to Texas, and did his best to keep himself in game shape while promoting his availability via social media. When the Heroes’ Esmil Rogers 로저스 broke a finger, they signed Hacker to a $300,000 midseason deal. Though he finished with a gaudy 5.20 ERA (99 ERA+), he was cuffed for 11 runs in 5.1 innings in the two outings that bookended his season, adding more than a run to that mark. The Heroes still called upon him to pitch Game 1 of the Semi-Playoffs against the Hanhwa Eagles, where he allowed one unearned run in 5.1 innings. The team won that round, but was eliminated by the SK Wyverns.

While Hacker still felt — and, at 37 years old now, feels — healthy enough to continue pitching, and spent the 2018-19 offseason staying in shape and on a throwing program, he passed up minor league opportunities as well as chances to pitch in Mexico and Taiwan, and remains in Southlake with his wife and three children. “I don’t foresee myself being done, because I feel like I have a lot to give back. I know a lot about the game from a teaching standpoint,” he said. “I’ve got a really good feel for mechanics and what makes somebody successful.”

We hoped you liked reading Eric Hacker Still Feels the KBO’s Pull by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Ryan DC

Great stuff Jay!