Korean star Jae-Gyun Hwang powers his way to Giants history

POWER PLAY — New third baseman Jae-Gyun Hwang, the first Korea-born player for the San Francisco Giants, hopes to bring power to the lineup. photo by Marcus Hung

In a dismal season, San Francisco Giants fans had a reason to celebrate June 28. Playing at home versus the Colorado Rockies, Jae-Gyun Hwang made history as the first Korea-born player to suit up for the Giants.

In his major league debut, the 29-year-old infielder hit a dramatic, go-ahead home run in the sixth inning. The home run was also his first major league hit. Hwang knocked in two runs in the game and led the Giants to a win and their first series sweep of the season.

Following their win against the Rockies, the Giants left for a six-game road trip. Hwang started five of the six games, all at third base. And while he made his initial splash at the plate, he flashed some leather manning the hot corner. “He’s been great defensively,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “He gets a lot of attention for his offense, but he’s also a smart player. He always seems to be in the right position on the field.”

The Giants returned home July 7-9 for their final series before the All Star break. Before the series began, Hwang spent a few minutes to reflect on fulfilling his lifelong dream and offer an inside look on what it’s like to play in the majors and shouldering the expectations of an entire nation.

A 10-year veteran of the Korean Baseball Organization, Hwang played for the Lotte Giants (no affiliation with the San Francisco club) in Korea. In his last season in Korea, Hwang slugged 27 home runs, drove in 113 runs, and posted a .335/.394/.570 slash line. All were career highs, and by every measure, Hwang had become an MVP-caliber player in the KBO.

Coming off his career year, Hwang was one of the most recognized athletes in Korea and positioned himself to get a lucrative contract in the KBO. Instead, he gave all that up and left his family behind to play in the U.S. When asked why he left Korea at the peak of his ability, popularity, and earning potential Hwang was matter-of-fact and resolute in his answer. “I’ve given up a lot to be here because it was always my dream to play in the major leagues,” he said.

To pursue his dream, he held a showcase in the offseason, and San Francisco signed Hwang to an incentive-laden, minor league deal. The deal had no guarantees of playing in the majors, only an invitation to compete for a roster spot in spring training. But Hwang was determined to make the best of his shot.

Hwang quickly and consistently impressed during spring training, hitting over .300 and showing steady power at the plate with four home runs. He was also popular in the clubhouse, winning the Barney Nugent Award at the end of spring training. The award is given to the player in his first big league camp whose “performance and dedication in spring training best exemplifies the San Francisco Giants spirit.”

Despite an impressive showing at camp, the Giants decided to start Hwang in their triple-A club in Sacramento. After a slow start, Hwang got hot in May and had an impressive month of June. In 68 total games with the Sacramento River Cats, Hwang had seven home runs, 44 RBI and a slash line of .287/.333./.476. Then on June 28, all of his sacrifices and hard work were rewarded.

Hwang remembers being surprised the day he got called up by the big league club, saying, “It was just like any other day. I wasn’t really expecting anything. Then suddenly, I got the news when I was sitting down to lunch.” Hwang joined the big league club late that night.

The next day, Bochy inserted Hwang into the starting lineup. The game was broadcast live in Korea and millions tuned in to watch even though the game started at 4:45 a.m. in his native country. Hwang admitted to being nervous, but he was focused on maintaining his aggressive style at the plate. His approach paid off with his first big league homer in his third at-bat.

Even though Hwang describes his hitting style as aggressive, he said that one of the biggest differences he’s noticed about the majors is the aggressiveness of all the players. “The speed of the game is definitely faster than it is in Korea,” said Hwang. “The fastballs are faster in the majors and the quality of the pitches they throw is just at a different level.”

To help his adjustment to the pace and quality of major league pitching, Hwang has tried to model his hitting approach after Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Justin Turner. Hwang said, “When I came to the U.S. I paid close attention to Justin Turner. I think physically we have a lot of similarities.” Hwang is listed at six feet tall, 215 pounds; Turner is listed at 5-11, 205. They also both primarily play third base. Their comparable size and shared orientation as power-hitting third basemen motivated Hwang to study Turner’s swing. “I’ve tried to make adjustments to my swing based off of Turner’s swing, trying to follow his swing path,” said Hwang.

Although he admitted that he’s still got a long way to go, he’s confident about how his aggressive style will translate in the majors. “I think that’s what the Giants first expected of me and why they initially showed interest in me,” said Hwang. “When they signed me, they signed me as a power hitter that will either play every day or come off the bench as a power pinch hitter. It’s my full expectation to be a power hitter in the majors.”

But for Hwang, he’s only recently realized his power hitting ability. In his first eight seasons as a pro ballplayer in Korea, he never hit more than 18 home runs. “When I first reached the pros in Korea, I didn’t think I was a power hitter,” said Hwang. “I thought my game would be about speed, getting on base, stealing bases, and getting extra base hits based on my speed. If I hit 10 home runs it would be great.”

In his ninth season, something clicked. “I started to think that I could become a power hitter, so I started working out really hard, lifting a lot of weights, to bulk up to create some power.” The result: 26 homers and a .521 slugging percentage in 2015. He followed that up with his career year in 2016, which he used as a springboard to reach the majors. Evidently, Hwang’s power play paid off.

Despite realizing his dream, Hwang is also fully aware of the expectations that Korean fans have of his early, but highly publicized career as a major leaguer. At the All Star break, Hwang was one of only seven Korea-born players on a 25-man major league roster. The first Korea-born player in the majors was pitcher Chan Ho Park when he debuted for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1994. There have only been 22 Korea-born players who have played in the major leagues since then.

The weight of history and his country’s expectations is a lot to carry even for the broad-shouldered and physically imposing Hwang. But he’s doing his best to keep everything in perspective.

“I know there’s definitely a lot of expectations and a lot of people back home who are cheering for me, and also a lot of Korean players in the majors who want me to do well,” said Hwang. “But for me, personally, I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself. I just want to enjoy the game and play my game, and show the people back home that I can play in the big leagues. If I just do that, that would be, by itself, the best thing to give back to the Korean community.”

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