In this file photo from June 16, 2020, Jared Hoying, then of the Hanwha Eagles, picks up a hit against the LG Twins in the bottom of the fourth inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Hanwha Life Eagles Park in Daejeon, 160 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)
They may be leading South Korean baseball as the season nears its halfway point, but the KT Wiz still see room for improvement.
And they're hoping veteran outfielder Jared Hoying, who signed with the Wiz over the weekend for his second tour of duty in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), can help address multiple issues by himself.
The Wiz announced their signing of Hoying, 32, on Saturday. He will make US$400,000 for the rest of the season.
Hoying will replace Zoilo Almonte, who batted .271/.336/.404 and had seven home runs with 36 RBIs in 60 games before getting sidelined with a slight tear in his right Achilles' tendon last week. This was Almonte's first season in the KBO.
In sum, the Wiz, the best team in the KBO at 40-27, cut ties with a player criticized for his lack of hustle, and replaced him with someone who only seems to know one way to play -- hard.
Hoying previously spent two and a half seasons in the KBO with the Hanwha Eagles. In 2018, Hoying had 30 home runs, 110 RBIs and 23 steals in 142 games while helping the Eagles reach the postseason for the first time in 11 years. As great as those numbers were, Hoying also endeared himself to Eagles fans with his hustle.
He followed that up with 18 homers, 73 RBIs and 22 steals in 124 games in an injury-plagued 2019 season. Hoying was waived in June 2020 after batting .194 with four homers and 14 RBIs in 34 games.
Hoying re-entered the consciousness of South Korean baseball fans earlier this month, when he was called up from the minors by the Toronto Blue Jays and briefly became teammates with the Korean ace on the team, Ryu Hyun-jin.
Hoying appeared in 74 games combined for the Texas Rangers in 2016 and 2017 before bringing his talent to the KBO. The Blue Jays gave him a fresh opportunity by signing him to a minor league contract at the end of May this year, and brought him up to the big stage two weeks ago when one of the starting outfielders, Teoscar Hernandez, went on paternity leave.
Hoying, who had three homers in seven games in Triple-A, appeared in two games for the Blue Jays on June 18 and 19 and went 0-for-3 with a strikeout. Once Hernandez returned, the Blue Jays took Hoying off their 40-man roster, and the player elected free agency.
That's when the Wiz pounced on him.
KT manager Lee Kang-chul said Saturday he'd been keeping tabs on Hoying's time with the Blue Jays organization. Lee had been concerned about the lack of flexibility in the outfield, with Almonte splitting time as designated hitter because of health issues. And when Lee stumbled on a news article about Hoying's situation -- that he was doing well in Triple-A but the outfield was crowded for the Blue Jays -- the manager was intrigued enough to ask the front office to check for Hoying's potential availability.
In a matter of days, Hoying joined the Wiz. And Lee expects Hoying to stabilize the outfield situation.
"When it comes to defense and baserunning, Hoying has already proven himself here," Lee said. "With Almonte unable to play much defense, it was difficult to put together lineups at times. Now that we have Hoying, we can give some of the guys a breather as DH."
Take away the lost season of 2020, and Hoying was one of the best hitters in the KBO in 2018-2019. Over that two-year span, Hoying ranked second overall with 73 doubles, fourth with 45 steals and eighth with 522 total bases.
Lee observed that Hoying's poor numbers in 2020 were probably the results of the dismal performances by the rest of the Eagles. They tied the league record by losing 18 consecutive games early last year and ended up finishing last with a 46-95-3 (wins-losses-ties) record.
"I think the low team morale (at the Eagles) and all that losing affected his hitting. Things should be much different when he's in our lineup," said Lee, whose club ranks first with a .294 batting average with runners in scoring position, and second with 368 runs scored and 328 walks. They also boast the current batting leader in Kang Baek-ho, who is hitting .402 after 67 games.
The skipper is also counting on intangible value that he believes Hoying can bring to his club.
In 2020, the Wiz had the best foreign hitter in the KBO, Mel Rojas Jr., who put up video game numbers en route to capturing the regular season MVP award. After Rojas left for Japan, the Wiz signed Almonte, who previously played in Japan. While the Wiz didn't necessarily expect Almonte to duplicate Rojas' gaudy numbers -- KBO-leading 47 home runs and 135 RBIs, for instance -- they were hoping they would at least get a serviceable outfielder.
But Almonte didn't exactly turn out to be the player that the Wiz, at the time of his signing last December, said would bring work ethic and enthusiasm to the diamond. His failure to run the bases hard or make routine plays in the outfield left Lee and the rest of the Wiz scratching their heads. There might have been some extenuating circumstances, since Almonte had been dealing with lingering effects of hamstring injury he sustained in Japan. But the Wiz's trainers had long deemed him healthy enough to play, and Lee once wondered aloud if Almonte just didn't have it in him to give his 100 percent.
When it comes to effort, Lee knows what he's getting with Hoying. And so far this season, Lee has seen how outfielder/DH Jose Pirela has been carrying the Samsung Lions with his hard-nosed style of play. Lions' manager Huh Sam-young has said he doesn't want Pirela to be running so hard all the time and risk getting himself injured -- something that Lee never had to say about Almonte. After missing the last five postseasons, the Lions are in third place, 1.5 games back of the Wiz.
"Hoying has a lot of passion for the game and he has the 'team-first' mindset. We thought really highly of that," Lee said. "Just like Samsung has benefited from having Jose Pirela, we believe Hoying can make similar impact on our club."