Mac Williamson

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. 

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

"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. 

[RELATED: How many homers would Willie Mays hit at Oracle Park?]

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."

Looking back at 19 homers Giants have hit off Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw

Looking back at 19 homers Giants have hit off Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw

Programming note: Watch the re-air of Madison Bumgarner's first home run off Clayton Kershaw tonight at 8 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

The matchups between Clayton Kershaw and the Giants have been, with very few exceptions, comically one-sided. 

Kershaw was supposed to make his 50th career appearance against the rival on Opening Day with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Giants squaring off, and he's coming up on two full season's worth of innings -- 342 1/3 so far -- thrown against the Giants, who have done a lot of work to bolster that Hall of Fame resume. Kershaw has a 1.74 ERA and 0.86 WHIP in those 49 appearances, 47 of which have been starts, and has allowed Giants hitters to put up an OPS of just .512. 

It has been a dozen years of destruction, plain and simple, but every once in a while, he'll hang a curveball or throw a slider that didn't get enough depth. The Giants have 19 homers against Kershaw, including two from Madison Bumgarner, one of which will air tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area.

Buster Posey has three homers against him, but the rest of the current roster only has three combined, and one of those comes from newcomer Wilmer Flores. The mainstays have had a nightmare of a time, with Brandon Belt currently carrying a 4-for-60 (with 29 strikeouts) line and Brandon Crawford sitting not much better at 6-for-48. 

The funny part about that limited success against Kershaw is that much of it has come from random Giants, the guys who would fill out the Bomb Squad, Bruce Bochy's name for the all-right-handed lineups he would throw against Kershaw as he hoped for the best.

Listen and subscribe to the Giants Insider Podcast:

Before tonight's re-air, we thought we'd look back at those 19 homers and the Giants who hit them:

2009: Bengie Molina: He got to him early, when Kershaw was just breaking into the big leagues. That was part of Molina's last double-digit homer season in the big leagues. 

2010: Juan Uribe: The first of his 24 homers that year came against Kershaw. 

2011: Chris Stewart: The catcher made a nice living during a 12-year career as a backup, but he hit just nine total homers, including three with the Giants. His homer off Kershaw came late in 2011, when Stewart became a bit of a regular after Posey's injury.

2012: Brett Pill, Melky Cabrera: Now we're cooking. Cabrera hit absolutely everybody for four months and then we found out it was chemically enhanced, but Pill is really right in the wheelhouse for this story.

He was supposed to be the right-handed complement to Belt, who has never figured out his fellow Texan (fun fact: Belt was once just as good a pitching prospect as Kershaw while the two were Texas teenagers). Kershaw is the only pitcher Pill faced double-digit times, and he had two hits, including a two-run homer. 

2013: Posey: These two have faced each other more than 100 times, and while Posey has had more competitive at-bats than most, he still carries just a .221/.267/.327 slash line. 

2014: Brandon Hicks: Remember when the Giants basically had an all-Brandon infield? That was wild. Hicks, a veteran second baseman, played just 71 games for the Giants and hit .162. But he did manage to put Kershaw in his book before being DFA'd when Marco Scutaro came off the DL. 

2015: Posey, Bumgarner: The first of Bumgarner's two homers against Kershaw airs tonight. He has multiple homers against just two pitchers, Kershaw and Zack Greinke, which is just another rather remarkable Bumgarner stat. 

2016: Bumgarner, Matt Duffy, Ehire Adrianza, Angel Pagan: The 2016 Giants managed four homers off Kershaw, partially because they faced him five times. Overall they batted just .174 against him that year and scored just 11 runs in 36 innings.

Adrianza's poke down the left-field line was one of three he hit in nearly 300 scattered at-bats for the Giants. The other two were against Andy Pettitte and Kenta Maeda, so at least he made them count. 

2017: Hunter Pence, Posey, Kelby Tomlinson, Mac Williamson: Pence would have started in left field on Opening Day this year, but he hasn't had any success in the matchups either despite having a platoon advantage. Pence has a .202/.211/.270 slash line in 89 career at-bats.

Tomlinson and Williamson were Bomb Squad regulars; they combined for 35 at-bats against Kershaw.

2018: Joe Panik: One of the most memorable Opening Day homers in franchise history, Panik's solo shot was the game-winner. He became the first Giant to take Kershaw deep from the left side. 

2019: Mauricio Dubon: He'll never get to face Peak Kershaw, but Dubon certainly opened some eyes when he blasted off last September at Dodger Stadium for his second career homer.

Whenever baseball resumes, Gabe Kapler will have to figure out a way to beat a pitcher he knows well. You can bet Dubon will be in the lineup -- probably right at the top -- every single time. 

Ex-Giants prevalent throughout spring training as non-roster invitees 

joepanikusatsi.jpg
USATSI

Ex-Giants prevalent throughout spring training as non-roster invitees 

The Giants will face Madison Bumgarner and Stephen Vogt this season, and if fans tune into an AL East game, they might see Joe Panik of the Toronto Blue Jays hit a ball that's caught by Kevin Pillar of the Boston Red Sox. 

The days of limited roster turnover are over, meaning more former Giants than ever are showing up in other camps. But it's not just the big names who are getting going right now. Plenty of old friends are still around as non-roster invitees and I went through the spring training media guide to check out the non-roster lists for every team. Here's a rundown of some players with Giants ties that you might have lost track of, and some you might have assumed retired years ago: 

Arizona Diamondbacks: Keury Mella. The right-hander was a pretty decent prospect when the Giants included him with Adam Duvall in the Mike Leake trade, but never panned out.

Chicago White Sox: Adalberto Mejia 

Atlanta Braves: Charlie Culberson, Yangervis Solarte

Baltimore Orioles: Ty Blach. Hey, he once started Opening Day for the Giants! 

Boston Red Sox: Tommy Joseph, John Andreoli. Joseph was the powerful prospect who brought Hunter Pence to San Francisco eight years ago. 

Cleveland Indians: Cameron Rupp. He was in Giants camp last spring competing for the job that ultimately went to Erik Kratz, who will be mentioned a bit later. 

Colorado Rockies: Mike Gerber, Julian Fernandez. A Rule 5 pick in 2017, Fernandez had Tommy John surgery before ever pitching for the Giants and then rehabbed with the Marlins last year before getting returned to his original team. He was originally hesitant about having surgery but some veterans pointed out that it was the best thing for his career, and he made more than $1 million while rehabbing. It worked out well for him. 

Houston Astros: Drew Ferguson. The outfielder was in Giants camp last year as a Rule 5 pick.

Los Angeles Angels: Neil Ramirez 

Los Angeles Dodgers: Connor Joe, Anthony Garcia. The 2019 Opening Day left fielder spent the rest of last season back in the minors with the Dodgers. 

Miami Marlins: Pat Venditte

New York Mets: Rene Rivera, Eduardo Nuñez, Johneshwy Fargas, Jarrett Parker. All of these guys are in Mets camp and receiving less attention than fellow non-roster invitee Tim Tebow. 

New York Yankees: Dan Otero, Erik Kratz

Oakland A's: Ian Gardeck. A hard-throwing right-hander, Gardeck was opening eyes in Giants camp in 2016 before his UCL gave out. He had Tommy John surgery and then needed a second one as he was on the verge of coming back. Root for this guy to stay healthy, he has been through a lot. 

Philadelphia Phillies: Francisco Liriano

Pittsburgh Pirates: Derek Holland, Williams Jerez, Nik Turley, Andrew Susac. If you see Pirates-Mets on the spring TV schedule, tune in for old friends. Also, how 'bout Susac still being in a camp? He's somehow only 29 years old. 

San Diego Padres: Kyle Barraclough, Chase Johnson

[RELATED: These four Giants made Keith Law's top 100 prospects list]

Texas Rangers: Jason Bahr, Derek Law, Tim Federowicz, Matt Duffy. Nobody in SF has forgotten Duffy, who is trying to stay healthy and win a backup job. Bahr was the prospect attached to Cory Gearrin and Austin Jackson so the Giants could dip under the tax. 

Tampa Bay Rays: D.J. Snelten. A trading partner with the Giants for so many years, the Rays have just one old friend. Snelten got his fastball up to the high 90s this offseason and got a job in part by promoting himself on social media. 

Toronto Blue Jays: Ryan Dull, Joe Panik, Ruben Tejada. One of these guys played a week for the Giants, one played a month and one will never have to buy a drink in San Francisco. 

Washington Nationals: Fernando Abad, David Hernandez, Mac Williamson. After a stint in South Korea, Williamson is back.