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Infielder heating up amid MLB interest before free agency

2016/09/20 09:41

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Sept. 20 (Yonhap) -- As the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) regular season winds down, there's not been a much hotter hitter than Lotte Giants third baseman Hwang Jae-gyun. And the 29-year-old has found the perfect time to heat up at the plate, with major league ball clubs taking interest in the free-agent-to-be.

Through Monday's action, Hwang is batting .337/.399/.572 with 26 home runs, 104 RBIs and 24 steals. He is top 10 in the Triple Crown categories, plus slugging percentage.

He has cracked the century mark in RBI for the first time and has tied his career-high in homers. From last Wednesday to Sunday, Hwang went 12-for-18 with four home runs and 10 RBIs.

The consistent player hasn't gone more than three games without a hit all season. His lowest monthly batting average was .302 in May.

Hwang's season may seem to be the classic example of a "contract year" phenomenon, whereby players in the final years of their contract tend to outdo themselves across the board as they prepare to hit the open market. But he has actually improved offensive production steadily over the past three years.

Hwang reached double figures in home runs for the first time in 2009, hitting 18 for the then Woori Heroes. His home run totals fluctuated over the next four seasons -- six, 12, four and seven -- before he enjoyed his first breakout season in 2014.

That year, Hwang batted .321 and knocked in 76 runs, then career-highs, while hitting 12 home runs and 33 doubles. He also established new personal bests with a .388 on-base percentage and a .475 slugging percentage.

He lost more than 30 points off his batting average in 2015, but set new career-highs with 26 home runs, 41 doubles and 97 RBIs. His on-base percentage dipped to .350, largely because of his 122 strikeouts, seventh most in the KBO.

This year, Hwang has cut down on his strikeouts to 60, while drawing 47 walks, just one shy of last year's total with 12 games left.

In this file photo taken on June 23, 2016, Hwang Jae-gyun of the Lotte Giants hits a two-run home run against the Kia Tigers in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken on June 23, 2016, Hwang Jae-gyun of the Lotte Giants hits a two-run home run against the Kia Tigers in their Korea Baseball Organization game at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju. (Yonhap)

He has also been able to sustain his form in the latter part of the season. Last year, Hwang was one of the league's top hitters at the All-Star break, with 22 homers and 65 RBIs in 85 games, along with a .306 batting average. He faded away badly in the second half, hitting just four home runs and batting .267 over the final 59 games.

It's been a much different story this year. After hitting .333 with 16 homers, 62 RBIs and 23 walks in the first 68 games before the break, Hwang has batted .343 with 10 homers, 42 RBIs and 24 walks in 47 games since. He stole seven bags in the first half but 17 in the second half.

The reticent player shrugged off his strong season as simply a matter of setting goals for himself and meeting them.

"Whenever I thought about what I needed to do to get better, I've been able to accomplish those things," he told Yonhap News Agency via phone Monday. "I think I can keep improving."

   Specifically, Hwang said he wasn't too pleased with his second-half swoon last year and wanted to make sure he wouldn't have a repeat in 2016. He also tried to cut down on his strikeouts and improve his contact ability without compromising his power.

Hwang said it's been "fortunate" that things have worked out the way he wanted them to. And working daily with the Giants' famous hitting coach, former major league batting champion Julio Franco, has also helped with his mechanics and mental approach to the game.

Hwang entered the posting process after the 2015 season -- making himself available in a silent auction for major league teams -- but no club submitted a bid on him. The player denied receiving no bid last year was much of a motivating factor entering this season, saying he's hardly distracted by such outside factors.

Hwang won't have to go through posting again, as he becomes a free agent this offseason. And sources privy to major league scouting said at least half a dozen big league clubs have taken an interest in Hwang.

The player, meanwhile, just keeps chugging along like business as usual.

"I don't really feel anything different even when scouts come to see me play," Hwang added. "I don't usually become conscious of things like that."

   jeeho@yna.co.kr

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