Jung Hoo Lee

Lee shows off power in Giants' win, continues hot start to MLB career

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SAN DIEGO -- The Giants had three players at the top of their wish list in the offseason and they watched in horror as the first two signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, adding an MVP and one of the world's best pitchers to a team that already was going to be favored to win the National League West. President of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi was not going to let the third get away.

The Giants responded by easily outbidding others, offering $113 million to Jung Hoo Lee, but they were confident that the South Korean center fielder could make an easy transition to Major League Baseball. After watching Lee take batting practice early in camp, Zaidi felt even more confident about the investment. 

"The bat-to-ball skills, the ability to square things up, and then the ability to, like, really launch the ball when he wants to, it's pretty exciting," he said early in the spring. "It's BP and we've seen him take BP before. The big challenge is going to come when facing Major League pitching, but it's been impressive."

It took just a few swings in camp for the Giants to feel that Lee was perhaps more like his idol, Ichiro Suzuki, than they had known when they signed him. Suzuki chased batting titles, not double-digit homer seasons, but he had the natural ability to swing for the fences when he needed to.

During his first few days in Scottsdale, Lee, a .340 career hitter in the KBO, occasionally let it fly, hitting long home runs off the party deck in right field at Scottsdale Stadium. The Giants were hopeful that there was more power than most had thought, and on Saturday night, it came out. 

Lee nearly homered in his third at-bat, yanking a Dylan Cease slider deep into the right field corner for a sacrifice fly. Three innings later, he unloaded on a slider from funky lefty Tom Cosgrove. 

The home run was the big highlight on a night full of them, something even Lee's teammates acknowledged after a 9-6 win. Michael Conforto hit a grand slam and Jordan Hicks had a dominant first start in orange and black, but it was Lee who got doused with a beer shower. 

Lee's teammates know how important he is to the organization's hopes, not just of competing this year but of clawing back segments of the fan base. At times through three games, they have found that they turn into fans, too.

"We love watching him hit," Conforto said. "Everybody is watching when he's up there. Just his discipline, his eye at the plate, his ability to stay on pitches, stay through the middle of the field, and then obviously we saw a little bit of power -- a lot of power if he gets the right pitch. He's been awesome. We're just going to keep putting him at the top of the lineup and let him set the tone for us."

Lee is not your traditional "appointment television" hitter. The home run was a no-doubter, but it was a modest 104 mph off the bat and landed 406 feet away. What he does so well, though, is show the traits that most hitters dream of. 

Through three games, Lee has seen 59 pitches and swung and missed just once. He struck out looking in his first big league at-bat, but he has four hits in 11 at-bats since and a couple of sacrifice flies. 

The Giants have had hard contact up and down the lineup through three games, and Lee is keeping pace with those who were brought in to be sluggers. In addition to the homer, he had two groundouts that qualified as "hard-hit balls" by Statcast's metrics. He had two on Friday, too, including a 109 mph single and 108 mph lineout. In his MLB debut, he hit two balls on the barrel. 

"It's not about how I get evaluated, but back in the KBO, I had a lot of doubles and triples," Lee said through interpreter Justin Han. "I'm putting the bat to the ball and that's what I'm thinking about now."

Lee's hair was dripping as he spent nearly 20 minutes giving interviews. Earlier, he had slipped into the hallway to trade three signed baseballs and a hat for the souvenir baseball. The family that caught the ball told him that Ha-Seong Kim is their favorite San Diego Padre, which made the night just a bit more special for Lee, who considers Kim a close friend.

The two have talked often during this series, but Lee kept from making eye contact when Kim twice robbed him on grounders early in the game. In the fifth inning, the Padres changed up their alignment and moved Kim in front of the bag at second, hoping to cut off a third grounder with a runner on third. Lee instead lofted a high fly ball to right. 

His next at-bat produced another ball that Kim had no shot at. The home run easily cleared the wall in right, and Lee passed Kim as he jogged the bases. Kim helped clear the way for Lee to get such a huge contract when he decided to come over to America, and after his big night, Lee said he hopes that more talent is on the way. 

"Ha-Seong and myself, we would like to try to make a good environment for players that would come from the KBO to play in the Major Leagues in the future," he said. "We talk about that a lot."

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