Darin Ruf

Ex-Giant Mac Williamson recalls KBO stint as America watches league

Ex-Giant Mac Williamson recalls KBO stint as America watches league

Baseball fans were just happy to have some form of the game back this week, so it was easy to overlook the empty seats as the Korean Baseball Organization kicked off Monday night. But when Mac Williamson tunes in this week to catch a glimpse of his 2019 Samsung Lions teammates, that's the first thing that'll catch his eye. 

The former Giants outfielder ended last season in South Korea, hitting .273 with four homers in 40 games for the Lions. He learned how to quickly calculate how fast a pitch was when it would pop up as 145 kilometers per hour. He learned a new cuisine, new culture and got accustomed to a different power structure in the dugout, one based entirely on seniority. More than anything, he learned how important the fans are to KBO games.

During a phone conversation Tuesday from his North Carolina home, Williamson explained what Giants fans should know about the KBO games they're watching. 

"The fan experience in those games is really what sets it apart, and it's hard to duplicate that now because they don't have fans," he said. "They have a head cheerleader who makes up a cheer for each player. Every player has his own chant and song, so when you're hitting they are chanting that song and dancing the entire time you're hitting. It doesn't stop. They're chanting the entire time. Any time you do something good they're chanting that song.

"That's one of the biggest things that's different, in a good way, in their game, but it's not coming through obviously because they're not allowed to have fans. It's pretty cool when you have a packed stadium and they're all chanting in unison. I came back to spring training and it was a little weird when you're hitting and it's dead quiet."

Williamson was in camp with the Washington Nationals this spring, preparing to head to Triple-A in Fresno, ironically, when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shut the sport down. Like most affiliated with MLB, he planned to tune into a KBO broadcast on ESPN this week, just with much more personal ties. 

Williamson was excited to watch former teammate Ben Lively, who started for the Lions in their second game. Williamson and Lively were two of the three foreign players on the Lions late last season, along with Darin Ruf, who also returned to the U.S. this spring and was making a strong push for a spot on the Giants roster. Each KBO team is allowed three foreign players, but only two can play in any one game. 

The rest of the league is made up of the best South Korea has to offer, and there were some who really impressed Williamson, though he felt, in general, the league was comparable to Triple-A in terms of talent level and competitiveness. 

"There are definitely some talented guys there that can play in the big leagues," he said. "The biggest difference for me was a lot more of the pitchers in Korea have splitters than in the United States. I struggled with that, so that was the biggest adjustment from a gameplay standpoint. Their arsenal was just different in that way."

Williamson still managed to put up solid numbers in his stint there, although it was perhaps not the best season for an American slugger to land in the KBO. The league changed its baseballs before the season, essentially de-juicing them, and offensive numbers cratered. Ruf, for instance, hit 31 and 33 homers in his first two years there, but just 22 in 2019. 

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"I was laying into some balls that weren't even going to the warning track," Williamson said. 

That wasn't the only adjustment between the lines. Williamson recalled looking up after one early pitch and seeing 138 on the scoreboard. 

"I was really thrown off at first, it was weird," he said. "They were like, 'That's 86 (mph).'"

Williamson quickly adjusted and started doing the math in his head, but there were other aspects of playing overseas that would have taken more than a few months in Daegu, a large city in the southeast portion of the country, to get used to.

For instance, In the fifth inning, the normal between-innings break was extended so the field could be taken care of. Williamson would watch as bench players, coaches and even umpires would retreat to a back room for a smoke break as the infield was dragged. 

The Lions put Williamson up in a three-bedroom apartment with all expenses paid but utilities, and he got a generous meal allowance. But it wasn't always easy for the 6-foot-4 outfielder to find three square meals a day. MLB players are accustomed to grabbing some food early in the afternoon when they get to the park and crushing the spread after a game, but the Lions served just one meal a day right after batting practice, generally consisting of rice, pasta or some sort of fried or breaded chicken. 

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Williamson said he was grateful Ruf was there to suggest all the best places to find more Americanized food on the road, and a team translator would often help the foreign-born players order takeout through an app. After home games, it was a little easier to cook up a familiar meal at his apartment. 

"They did have a Costco there," Williamson said, "Which was awesome."

Giants Mailbag: What should we make of possible MLB season in Arizona?

Giants Mailbag: What should we make of possible MLB season in Arizona?

There are a lot of different ways to simulate what this season would have looked like, but sometimes all you need is your imagination. For instance, it's not hard to picture how tonight's Giants-Padres game at Petco Park would have played out. They're generally pretty similar.

There would have been a few thousand Giants fans behind the visiting dugout because while it's no longer AT&T South, San Diego still is a go-to destination for the diehards. The score would be 3-2, or 4-3, or 2-1 -- you just know it would have been close. Wil Myers probably would have hit a home run and some random bearded dude you've never heard of would have come out of the Padres bullpen in the seventh inning with a 97 mph fastball and a 2.37 ERA. I would have had nachos in the third inning. 

Alas, none of that is happening. It's another Friday without baseball, but that also means it's time for another Friday mailbag. Thanks as always to the Instagram followers who sent these questions over ... 

"Asking as a new employee of the Giants -- do you think the season will resume in June/July?" -- sdot_youngu

Might as well dive right in. I do not. 

More than 700 people died in New York on Thursday, and I just have a really, really difficult time seeing how baseball resumes at a time when this is still going on in our country. Hopefully, this all slows down in the coming weeks, but it's going to be hard for any sport to resume until it's under control, and until there's enough testing that players can be checked on a daily basis without taking that ability away from doctors, nurses and their fellow citizens. 

A few people also asked if I think MLB should resume. I love baseball, I miss baseball, and my career is directly tied to baseball. But I'm on Team Stay at Home and Flatten the Curve, and I'm extremely grateful that I live in a city that reacted early and has done a pretty good job of fighting back thus far. I hope the officials at MLB who are considering this Arizona plan also are putting plenty of time into planning how they will take care of hotel workers, trainers, the grounds crew, security guards, drivers, chefs, etc. There are a lot of non-players who will be put at risk if MLB returns too soon. 

"How do players feel about the proposal to start the season? Those conditions sound bleak." -- tylerdrums

So far I think they're generally trying to be positive about it and point out how much they want to play baseball and hope the sport can return soon. But I think when it ultimately comes time to make a decision, a lot of guys will push back. 

Perhaps MLB will find a better way, but the proposal to put players in hotels for four months and keep them from their families will be a non-starter for a lot of guys.

For example, if you're a veteran who already is financially set for life, plays for a team that's not projected to be very good anyway, and you have multiple young children at home, what's the incentive to leave them for four months to play games in 105-degree heat? 

Maybe that gap can be bridged by allowing families to rent houses and quarantine themselves, but that's a slippery slope if much of our society is still on lockdown. Once all that's decided, you have to figure out the finances of a shortened season with no fans in the stands. Good for MLB and the MLBPA for trying to find solutions, but it's a nightmare. 

"Will Darin Ruf make the team, and if so does Pence play in right a lot?" -- jesseaflora

Ruf, a veteran who came back from Japan, was the hottest player in the Cactus League when play was suspended. He finished 12-for-28 with three homers and five doubles, certainly making a strong push.

I tend to think spring numbers barely matter, because often times the guys who tear up the Cactus League are doing so against minor league pitching late in games and we've learned over and over again -- hello, Chris Marrero -- that a hot spring doesn't necessarily translate. But Ruf was putting himself in a strong spot and he certainly filled a need.

He'll have a new issue working against him when the Giants resume. Pablo Sandoval should be 100 percent healthy and will take one of those bench spots. On the other hand, if MLB resumes in 2020 there will be expanded rosters, and that could allow Ruf to make it. I would think he would be more of a bench bat in that situation, leaving Pence and Dickerson in left field.

"Hey Alex, what do you normally do during the quarantine?" -- huddler_92

On the day spring training got canceled I ordered an Xbox, which has been helpful. 

In all seriousness, every day is kind of the same, right? We're doing our best to bring you original Giants content, including two new podcasts this week, and I've enjoyed digging through my phone and laptop to find photos and videos for Instagram. I know we have some cool content coming, but I'm certainly open to any ideas from readers, so reach out if there's something you've always wanted to know.

There was a Tiger King weekend, obviously, and I'm grateful that The Challenge has returned. I spend about 10 minutes every day watching new versions of that coffin meme and trying to decide if it would be cruel or funny to make one about the 2016 NLDS. Standard stuff. 

"If the season is canceled, will all contracts just be extended one year?" -- craiggus

Nope, MLB and the MLBPA reached an agreement that guarantees service time even if there is no season. So Jeff Samardzija would be a free agent, and the Giants would be one year closer to the expiration of the other big contracts. 

"Is Crawford better at brackets, or picking ground balls deep in the hole between shortstop and third?" -- lifematt

I appreciate all the hard work Brandon Crawford is putting into his brackets, but Apple Jacks as a 15 seed is an absolute travesty! 

"Giants farm system is considered in the top 10 now. What do you think about that?" -- pasqualeesposito0

This is far and away the best development for the organization over the last year. That is the only way to build a sustainable winner, and you have to give credit to both regimes for making this happen.

Bobby Evans and the previous group brought in players like Marco Luciano, Joey Bart and Heliot Ramos and Farhan Zaidi and the new coaches and development people have done a really nice job of advancing their careers. 

It's not hard to see a situation where Bart, Ramos and Hjelle are getting their feet wet during the 2021 season and giving fans real, legitimate excitement. Luciano has a chance to be a game-changer, the type of young hitter who comes in and changes the entire trajectory of a franchise. Perhaps Hunter Bishop turns into the 30-homer threat this lineup has been missing for years. Beyond that, there's a lot of intriguing depth, too. 

As painful as it is to get there, there's not much that's more exciting for a fan base than the arrival of top prospects, and the Giants have a chance to make some serious strides starting next season. The future appears to be bright. 

"What is your best memory of 2014?" -- coldgame_christian_garcia

There are two that come to mind right away. 

I've never seen a press box shake the way the one at Kauffman Stadium did when Alex Gordon tripled in the ninth inning. There's that old "no cheering in the press box" rule and honestly, people do a really good job of keeping their heads down and updating their stories. That's the job. But when Gordon was held at third, it was mayhem.

I remember looking up and down the first row of the press box and laughing at how many people were having animated conversations about the play or in awe of what they were watching. We were all fans at that moment, just soaking in one of the most intense moments in MLB history. 

The other that sticks out is from the following day. There was an older woman running the United gate at the airport and when she saw that I was going to San Francisco, she asked if I was in town for the World Series. We then spent about 10 minutes talking about how fun the series was and she kept saying how happy she was for Giants fans because it was such a hard-fought battle.

The people of Kansas City were so unbelievably kind to all of us visitors that October. I couldn't help but root for them the next postseason. 

"Is Dubon a realistic long-term possibility in center field?" -- itainteasybeingcheesy28

I think Dubon's long-term destination depends partly on other Giants prospects. He could easily handle shortstop every day, but what if Luciano stays there and is up in a couple of years? Will a Ramos or Bishop stick as a center fielder? 

I think it's too early to try to figure out what Dubon is long term, and first he'll need to prove he can consistently hit in the big leagues, too. But at the very least, he's a nice chess piece for Gabe Kapler. The Giants view him similarly to the way the Dodgers view Kiké Hernandez and Chris Taylor. He can play just about every day, but not necessarily at one position.

He should be able to fill in a lot of gaps when the Giants are ready to contend again. 

"Updates on Oracle Park?" -- thephenomjr

Construction has stopped for now, but if there's a point where MLB is ready to return to home cities this year, the Giants are close enough that it'll take them just a couple of weeks to finish the bullpens.

The park will be ready when the players are.

[RELATED: Kruk and Kuip share hilarious story about Will Clark, sushi]

"Not a mailbag question you can answer probably, but did you grow up a Giants fan?" -- raymondp33

Yep, I did. Actually the other day I posted a video on Instagram of a Barry Bonds home run I witnessed:

I grew up in Cupertino and took the train that day with a few of my closest friends, and to this day we still joke about how we snuck down from the upper deck and found seats about 20 rows behind the Giants dugout. That gave us the perfect view of Bonds' blast sailing into the Cove. 

Everything changes when it becomes your career, but I grew up in the Bay Area and had the same highs and lows as a lot of you. The Steve Finley grand slam was one of the worst moments of my life. 

How Giants were shaping up as original 2020 MLB Opening Day approaches

How Giants were shaping up as original 2020 MLB Opening Day approaches

The Giants would have flown to Los Angeles on Wednesday. At some point, Gabe Kapler would have sat down with a pen and card and created his first lineup as manager, deciding just how heavy he wanted to go with right-handers with Clayton Kershaw ready to dig in on the other side. Perhaps Kapler would have spent a few minutes with pitching coach Andrew Bailey discussing their best option if they had a lead after eight innings. 

Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris would have finalized the roster, picking a 26th man for the first time and making the final decisions in their outfield and bullpen. They would have scoured the waiver wire one more time, looking for recently-designated players they could slide onto the back of the 40-man roster. 

None of that is the reality right now. The Giants don't know when they will play again, how many games they'll get in 2020, or if fans will even be in attendance the first time Johnny Cueto kicks at the dirt and decides to mix in a shimmy or a quick pitch. 

But at some point, the Giants and the rest of MLB will resume, and at some point the focus will turn back to baseball. There will be an Opening Day, it just won't be tomorrow. There will be an Opening Day roster, and much of it was decided before the coronavirus pandemic hit the pause button on spring training. 

It's unlikely that much will change in terms of the roster before all of this resumes, so with the original Opening Day date just a few hours away, let's take a look at how the Giants were shaping up:

Catcher

The last major move made before the end of the spring was the decision to send Joey Bart back to minor league camp. But all along it was Rob Brantly vs. Tyler Heineman in the race to back up Buster Posey. Neither was tearing it up in the Cactus League, and there definitely was a strong chance that another catcher would have been scooped up this week.

Remember, Zaidi added Erik Kratz and Tom Murphy at the end of his first spring with the Giants. 

Infield

You have your locks in Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria and Wilmer Flores, and there was little doubt that Mauricio Dubon was making the team and seeing plenty of time at second, short and center. 

Donovan Solano has an option remaining but he was 8-for-21 in the spring, reminding the staff of how reliable he has become at the plate. Yolmer Sanchez was just 3-for-26, and while this staff certainly won't overreact to a small sample size, he had to be feeling some nerves as the games ticked by. 

With an extra spot, the Giants could have carried Solano and Sanchez, but that won't be possible when they resume if rosters don't expand for position players. Pablo Sandoval will almost certainly be 100 percent cleared by that point and will get a backup spot. 

Outfield

With Dubon showing he can play center, the Giants gained more flexibility in the outfield, and some clarity was gained when they optioned Steven Duggar to Triple-A. 

Mike Yastrzemski, Hunter Pence and Alex Dickerson are the locks, and after that it might have come down to keeping inventory. The Giants want to get a look at Jaylin Davis this season, but they wouldn't mind him getting hot in Triple-A first. Austin Slater is in a tough spot because he can be optioned. 

With Duggar optioned, it would be somewhat risky to go into a season at Oracle Park with Yastrzemski (who didn't play much center last year) and Dubon (a natural infielder) as your main center fielders, so Billy Hamilton looked to be in a good spot. 

The toughest decision might have been with veteran Darin Ruf, who was 12-for-28 with three homers, five doubles and a triple. Ruf was the story of the final days of camp and his right-handed thunder would have been a nice fit on the bench, but it might be tougher to fit him in once Sandoval is back. 

Rotation

This is where the layoff might end up making a decision for the Giants. Their best option behind Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly is 23-year-old Logan Webb, but he was going to be under a workload restriction after throwing just 103 innings last year. With a shortened season, the Giants can more easily put Webb in their rotation to start and just keep him there, and that's probably what they should do. 

The Giants felt pretty good about their depth, with Trevor Cahill, Trevor Oaks and Andrew Suarez throwing well early on. They'll have another option once all of this resumes; Tyler Anderson was ahead of schedule in rehab from knee surgery and he should be ready. 

Bullpen

There was just about complete uncertainty with this group heading into the spring, and it could be even wilder when Spring Training 2.0 kicks off. That's because the expectation within the game is that a shortened season will at least start with expanded rosters. There has been speculation that teams could start with an additional half-dozen pitchers to make up for the lack of ramp-up time before games begin.

So, if you're trying to make final cuts in the bullpen, maybe you end up just keeping them all and even adding a player who has been optioned already -- say, a Shaun Anderson type. 

[RELATED: Pence doesn't think shorter season cheapens World Series]

The layoff will allow Tony Watson to get his shoulder fully healthy, and Trevor Gott was in a good spot behind him. Quietly, Wandy Peralta and Jarlin Garcia had combined for 18 spring strikeouts in 10 scoreless innings, and both lefties should be in a Giants bullpen of any size. 

With an expanded roster and shortened season, there's no reason to not keep Rule 5 pick Dany Jimenez, and young guys like Sam Coonrod and Tyler Rogers don't have to worry as much about being on the bubble. There is more breathing room for veterans like Jerry Blevins and Nick Vincent, too. 

The Giants could fill out their bullpen with guys like Cahill, Oaks, Suarez, Dereck Rodriguez, Tyson Ross and Andrew Triggs, who could all provide valuable innings, especially with the likelihood that teams will play a lot more doubleheaders.

In a weird way, this might put the Giants in a decent spot. Their staff wasn't being built to go head-to-head with opposing starters for seven innings every night, but they certainly have accumulated plenty of guys who can give you 40-50 pitches several times a week.