The New Lotte Giants, Same as the Old

Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)

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Since the end of the 2019 KBO season, there’s been considerable excitement surrounding the future of the Lotte Giants. The hiring of GM Min-Kyu Sung, a former Chicago Cubs coach who worked closely with Theo Epstein, and Sung-Min Kim, an analytically-driven writer for Fangraphs and The Athletic, represented a necessary change for a team that lost 93 games. 

Indeed, change occurred during the offseason. The new GM rocked the Korean baseball world by releasing 18 players to give young prospects more playing time. Furthermore, he did not renew the contracts of 11 coaches, another act of defiance against the old ways of baseball. After a few free agent signings, trades, and adjustments to the roster, the Lotte Giants were ready to take flight. 

Fast forward to 2020, and as of June 8th, the Lotte Giants are 6th out of 10 teams with a 14-15 record. That’s not bad, but it’s also disappointing, considering their hot start to the season and subsequent hype amongst new Giants fans, many of them Americans. 

However, a sub-.500 record shouldn’t be surprising, nor a huge concern. After all, the Lotte Giants finished dead last season, and the road to improvement is a process – a marathon as opposed to a sprint. The Giants, according to the plan, are supposed to be mediocre for a few seasons. 

So I’m not writing this article because the Giants are bad. I’m writing it because of a bigger issue: the plan is faltering. 

The primary goal of any good rebuild (or ‘remodeling,’ as Min-Kyu Sung himself once said) is replacing aging players with young ones who will grow and develop. So far, the Lotte Giants 2020 roster is identical to last season’s. For example, the outfield is occupied by former players who, with the exception of Ah-Seop Son, are on pace to have 2 or less wins above replacement. Ro-han Kang or Min-Jae Choi, young players designated by GM Min-Kyu Sung to become the team’s center fielders, are nowhere to be found on daily lineups. Kang has only had 9 plate appearances this year, and Choi is still in the minor leagues. In their rightful place is Byung-hyun Min, whose 80 wRC+ and subpar defense are just one of the Giants’ many complications. 

Even more puzzling is the decision to not use catcher Sung-Jun Gee, a trade acquisition from the Hanwha Eagles who hit a whopping .571 during spring training. He has yet to play a game for the Giants. Instead, the team uses a frustrating combination of catchers including Bo-Geung Jung and Jun-Tae Kim, who have a Jeff Mathis-esque combined wRC+ of 25. Why not give Gee, who has a career wRC+ of 79, at least a few plate appearances? 

Baseball fans and media have blamed manager Mun-Hoe Heo for deviating from the plan, and such accusations are reasonable. In baseball, the manager—not the front office—ultimately decides playing time and game usage. Perhaps there is a conflict between Mun-Hoe Heo and Min-Kyu Sung, similar to how Billy Beane had difficulty convincing manager Art Howe to use Scott Hatteberg at first base during the Moneyball era. 

Questions regarding playing time have been at the center for the Giants’ disappointing start to the 2020 season. (Photo of manager Mun-Hoe Heo via Joongang Daily)

Heo announced that he would take a more active role in determining in-game strategies, having previously let hitters do as they pleased. That sounds innocuous until you see that Heo specifically mentions bunts. Here’s an example of one: 

Sure, in the bottom of 9th of a tie-game, it does sound reasonable to advance the runner with a sacrifice. But I’m confident that if general manager Min-Kyu Sung could, he would have vetoed this decision. Why? Based on this table from Tom Tango, the average run expectancy when a man is on second with one out (0.664) is LESS than the average run expectancy when a man is on first with no out (0.859). 

The Giants went on to walk it off, so you could argue that it was the right decision. Call it poor process and a good result, if you will. But in a rebuild, the results aren’t as important. What matters is the successful integration of a new baseball philosophy amongst players, coaches, and front office members. Mun-Hoe Heo’s decision to become ‘more involved’ speaks of dissonance, not agreement. 

Another signature strategy of Heo’s is batter aggression early in counts. Is there a benefit to this? Kind of. The 2020 Giants are whiffing at less pitches and making more contact. This table shows how good they are doing so relative to other KBO teams (as of June 8th): 

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OK, that seems fine. Now here are the leaders in team OBP: 

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Notice the glaring disparity? The Giants are making plenty of contact, but they fail to get on base as often as other teams. And no, this isn’t necessarily a problem of plate discipline – the Giants have 98 team walks, one more than the Bears. The problem is, when the Giants DO make contact, they ground out 48.9% of the time, the second-worst in the KBO behind the depressing Hanwha Eagles, who ground out 50.8% of the time. If you’re wondering why the Giants are slugging just .364, there’s your answer. 

The tendency to ground out is difficult to fix in a single season, as power takes time to develop within young players, and you can’t teach an old player new power tricks. But what the Giants can do is become even pickier at the plate. Between 2017 and 2019 in the MLB, here’s the value of being ahead in the count vs. behind it, wOBA-wise: 

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That’s roughly the difference between Mike Trout (.436 wOBA in 2019) and Humberto Arteaga (.221 wOBA in 2019), who I didn’t know existed until I scrolled through 16 pages of the FanGraphs batting leaderboard. 

Will better plate discipline alone solve the Giants’ problems? Probably not. But I brought it up for a reason. For the Lotte Giants, the low OBP is representative of a bigger problem: the lack of trust in the process. Maybe swinging at the first few pitches represents a longing to return to the team’s initial hot streak, filled with glory and walk-off victories. Maybe manager Mun-Hoe Heo’s reluctance to use younger players stems from an aversion towards risk and uncertainty. With veterans, you know what to expect. 

But in order for the Giants to succeed in the long run, both risks and patience are key. The risk of letting young players lead the game. The patience required to let them develop through their mistakes. A refusal to break the status quo has plagued the Giants for years, and is threatening to extend into the 2020 season. Right now, they are mediocre without purpose. Our hope is that Min-Kyu Sung and the Giants’ new front office will get their way and make sure the new Giants are, eventually, nothing like the old Giants. 

Follow P365 KBO Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

(All statistics are from Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, and Statiz) 

Featured image courtesy of Yanhap News and the respective photographer

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