The Next Good Hitter to Come from South Korea

The next good hitter to come from South Korea almost came to the majors a year ago. Maybe “almost” is taking it too far — ultimately, nobody placed a bid. But the hitter was posted, then, so the opportunity was present. The hitter is now a free agent. The opportunity is present once more.

You’ve heard what people have been saying about this year’s free-agent market. It’s miserable, especially toward the top, and the other day Keith Law said it’s one of the worst classes he can remember. One player can’t make the difference, short of that one player being, say, Mike Trout or Shohei Otani. This is going to be the winter of trade rumors. But the free-agent market doesn’t only include minor leaguers and major leaguers with American track records. You shouldn’t overlook the 29-year-old Jae-Gyun Hwang, because he just made himself substantially better, and he’s there for the bidding.

With any international player, there is so much we can’t know. We have enough trouble projecting players who’ve been in the big leagues for six or seven years. So let’s just start here with the few known facts: Hwang is, indeed, 29. He’s South Korean, and he’s played in the KBO since 2007, when he was a teenager. He bats right-handed, and he throws right-handed, and he’s been a shortstop before, although he’s more of a third baseman. He’s of a pretty average build. Congratulations, now you know some things about Jae-Gyun Hwang. Here’s a YouTube highlight video if you want to pretend to be a scout.

Hwang isn’t positioned to be a trailblazer. We’ve already seen Jung Ho Kang. We’ve already seen Hyun Soo Kim and Byung-ho Park. The first two, to this point, have been on-the-field success stories. Park ran into problems that weren’t so hard to foresee. He could still figure things out; last year he wasn’t entirely healthy. The majors have seen enough Korean success that Hwang is holding interest. The question is, why didn’t anyone bid a year ago? Why would the situation be different now? In reality, there’s a pretty good reason! And so we should look at some numbers.

The best I can do is to show you Hwang in context. So I’ve prepared four plots, showing Hwang’s decade against the KBO averages. First, here’s batting average:

hwang-batting-average

Hwang has been pretty steady there for a while — he’s consistently hit higher than the league, since maturing. Okay, good start. How about walks? Is Hwang much of a walker?

hwang-walk-rate

Not really. Walks aren’t uncommon in the KBO, and Hwang drawing a walk hasn’t been uncommon, but his unintentional walk rates have been a little below the average. Consider that a possible point against him. Now then, time for isolated power!

hwang-isolated-power

This is huge. For a while, Hwang was more or less an average power hitter. Gap-to-gap kind of guy, a guy you like to have but who generally isn’t a superstar. Then, two seasons ago, the power took off. According to Sung Min Kim, the power burst coincided with an effort toward getting stronger and healthier. In other words, it wasn’t a coincidence, but rather something he wanted to do. The power was maintained this past year. That’s more than 1,100 plate appearances of evidence that Hwang has bid his old profile goodbye.

So, what happened last offseason? Why could there be a different story this offseason? It all comes down to strikeout rate.

hwang-strikeout-rate

A year ago, Hwang was coming off a power breakthrough, but that also saw his strikeouts spike. That’s a pretty ordinary side effect, but it can also scare off potentially interested teams. Hwang’s strikeout rate was higher than the average for the first time since 2010. This year was completely different. In 2015, Hwang’s isolated power was 54% better than average. In 2016, his isolated power was again 54% better than average. But, in 2015, Hwang’s strikeout rate was 9% higher than average. In 2016, his strikeout rate was 26% lower than average. Hwang repeated his best power season, while also having his best-ever contact season.

That gets a guy noticed. That buys a guy the benefit of the doubt. You can’t do what Hwang did without making some challenging adjustments, but now his swing is closer than ever to being major-league ready. I’m sure it’s not perfect, and I’m sure there are some kinks to be worked out, but you can understand why the game would find Hwang an awful lot more interesting these days.

He has a history of stealing bases, although he also has a history of getting caught stealing bases. Hwang probably isn’t a strongly positive baserunner. From the few reports I’ve seen, he’s neither very good nor very bad in the infield. For some reason, the name I can’t get out of my head is Trevor Plouffe. Hwang feels like he could be a lot like another Trevor Plouffe. I know that’s not terribly exciting, and Plouffe just finished with a slightly negative WAR. At his best, though, Plouffe was a 3.5-win regular. Hwang would be enormously valuable with that kind of year, and though all three of the Korean hitters have seen their power drop off in the bigs, Statcast shows there’s a lot to like about them. Even Park made some excellent contact. Kang has improved his strikeout rate, relative to the league average. Kim just maintained his average and OBP.

Of course there’s risk that Hwang might not be good enough. He might not be able to make enough adjustments. But, who is predictable, really? To go back to Plouffe, his year-to-year WARs have read 0.3, 3.5, 2.4, and -0.4. That’s weird as all hell, and he’s spent the whole time in Minnesota. Hwang feels like he’s worth the modest investment he’s likely to command. Korean players have been underpaid, so that’s another sort of opportunity that’s present. Free-agent values are harder and harder to come by.

As possible fits go, I wonder if the best one might be with the Angels. I’ve had them in mind of late, and they have limited money to spend, with a need in the infield. In theory, they could put Hwang at third base, and move Yunel Escobar over to second. It would probably make them better, and it would leave them with money to put other places. The Angels aren’t the extent of the list. They’re just the first team that came to mind. There are others that make sense.

Someone ought to sign Jae-Gyun Hwang. I figure that someone will sign Jae-Gyun Hwang. He looks like he’s the next good position player out of South Korea. That league they have plays at a pretty high level.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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This is all to the good, but the real question is what does Dan Farnsworth think?