Jung Hoo Lee gets up to speed in Giants spring training debut

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jung Hoo Lee accomplished quite a bit in the span of one exhibition inning on Tuesday.

First hit. First run. First time impacting the game with his speed. First time losing his helmet on the basepaths. First descent into a dugout filled to the brim with major-league teammates eager to give him a high five. And because the San Francisco Giants nearly batted around in a five-run first inning at Scottsdale Stadium, there was the first scramble with Korean interpreter Justin Han to translate the scouting report on the Seattle Mariners’ minor-league pitcher who had entered the game.

“I was happy to spark that five-run inning,” Lee said through Han. “I’m just thinking about the future and what I’m supposed to do.”

There is no confusion over what Lee is supposed to do. He is the Giants’ leadoff hitter and center fielder. He isn’t here to win a job or carve out playing time. The Giants made their $113 million commitment. When you sign the biggest free-agent contract by a position player in franchise history, all bets are final. The exhibition season is not a time for Lee to prove whether he belongs.

But the exhibition season is most definitely a time for him to explore and experiment, beginning with his Cactus League debut on Tuesday. That’s why Lee had the green light after poking a single through the right side off Mariners right-hander George Kirby. That’s why Lee aggressively took off with the pitch twice. The first time, No. 2 hitter Thairo Estrada fouled one back. The second time, Estrada hit a groundball to shortstop and Lee’s speed pressured Mariners shortstop Ryan Bliss into making a fielding error.

A few moments later, Lee showed impressive instincts while putting the Giants on the board. LaMonte Wade Jr. floated a single to center field, and Lee made a perfect base-running read while scoring without a throw to the plate.

“As advertised,” Wade said, smiling. “He handles the bat well, he’s fast, looks like he knows the strike zone very well. I think it’s going to be really good. And I think it creates a good dynamic at the top of the lineup, having tough at-bats in a row getting on base. Especially with the way he can control the bat, knows what he wants to do, he’s not going to give away at-bats.”

Wade was no slouch as the Giants’ primary leadoff batter last season. His .373 on-base percentage ranked 13th among qualified big leaguers. But the Giants’ offense wasn’t dynamic enough to leverage one of their better individual offensive traits, as Wade scored just 64 runs. The hope is that Lee, Estrada and Wade will be able to combine contact skills, speed and on-base fuel that will allow them to create more scoring opportunities that don’t have to be fueled by a home run or consecutive hits. And when they do get that homer, from Jorge Soler or J.D. Davis or someone else, those scoring opportunities can become big innings.

In the first inning on Tuesday, they got a little bit of everything. Lee put them on the board with contact and hustle, and then Patrick Bailey hit a grand slam to complete the five-run inning.

It won’t always work out that way, of course. But the Giants are eager to turn the page from last season, when they had a hard time rattling opposing starters the first time through the lineup and often found themselves playing from behind as a result. The Giants posted the third-worst OPS (.650) against opposing starters the first time through the lineup. Their 215 runs in the first three innings was the fourth-lowest total among major-league clubs.

The Giants are betting Lee will help them set a peskier tone this season. And they want him to use this spring to test his limits. Even though he never stole more than 13 bases in a season for KBO’s Kiwoom Heroes, the Giants coaching staff sees a player who has made a complete recovery from last year’s fractured ankle and who has plenty of A-to-B speed to steal his way into scoring position.

“Hopefully we can help a little bit to create a little more havoc on the bases,” Giants manager Bob Melvin said. “We’re trying to learn him, too. Obviously, there’s information. You can watch video. But (you don’t know) until you really get him on a field and see what kind of havoc he can create. I think he’s looking forward to being more aggressive on the bases.

“Just let him play and do his thing.”

That’s been the message from Melvin and his coaching staff to Lee in these early days of camp: Don’t worry about statistics. Just do your best to settle in and get comfortable.

Easier said than done when your contract dwarfs anything a KBO player has received from a major-league team, when you receive daily requests from the Korean media contingent and when you’re learning the written and unwritten rules in your first major-league camp. Among the questions Lee has asked teammates and coaches so far: Can we bring family to the team hotel? Who do I ask if I want more at-bats at the minor-league complex? Where should I go to buy a comfortable mattress?

“That’s why I told him, ‘Hey, we’ll worry about the baseball stuff when the baseball stuff happens,’” said hitting coach Pat Burrell, who was the recipient of the mattress question. “We just want him to feel comfortable here. Sure, there will be an adjustment period. But nothing he does here will worry any of us.”

Burrell said there has been a buzz during batting practice as Lee sprays line drives on the field and teammates comment on his barrel accuracy and balance. Outfielder Michael Conforto, who is Lee’s locker neighbor this spring, has been impressed by something even more basic. He has spent time watching the 25-year-old left-handed hitter’s work habits in the indoor cage. Lee starts by swinging right-handed as part of a gradual warmup routine. Then he takes underhand flips at an angle. Then flips from straight away. Then overhand flips. Only then does he begin to take full swings.

“He’s not worried about hitting the ball super hard,” Conforto said. “He’s just finding his path, which I thought was interesting. That’s the kind of routine you’d see from a big leaguer who’s been around a long time. Every piece of his routine has a purpose. It’s very intentional. It’s not like (hitting coach Justin Viele) told him to do this and this and this. He brought it with him, and he had that part down.”

Said Burrell: “He’s trying to achieve something and move on with his day. I wish there were more like him, to be honest.”

As Conforto views it, the bigger challenge for Lee might not be competing against higher-velocity pitching but adjusting to the sheer number of arms he’ll face in the big leagues. The KBO is a 10-team league. The Giants will face 29 major-league pitching staffs populated with arms that will be brand new to Lee. And with the pitch clock, there won’t always be an ideal amount of time to receive a full scouting download. So the spring will be about refining those processes, too.

And one more thing: finding a helmet that won’t rattle off his head as he runs down the first-base line, as it did on his leadoff single, or while striking out, as he did in his third at-bat. Lee’s friend and former Kiwoom teammate Ha-Seong Kim had the same issue with the San Diego Padres before getting a custom-fitted model last season. Lee’s version is on order. It should arrive in a day or two.

Finding the perfect mattress? That might take a little longer.

Another leading candidate to round out the Giants rotation has been set back this spring. Right-hander Tristan Beck returned to San Francisco to have his right hand examined. Melvin said he didn’t know the nature of Beck’s injury but the 27-year-old had been experiencing discomfort while throwing. Right-hander Keaton Winn, who was set back by elbow soreness, has resumed throwing and is expected to be ready for Opening Day. But the pair of injuries has to be concerning for a rotation that is hardly a bastion of innings eaters after Logan Webb. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the rotation questions nudge the Giants along in their ongoing discussions with agent Scott Boras about free-agent left-hander Blake Snell.

Jordan Hicks, who is being converted from relief to the rotation, struck out four in 1 2/3 innings, hit 100 mph on the fifth pitch he threw and was pleased with his 90 mph splitter. He also allowed a home run and exceeded 30 pitches in the first inning. Hicks and rookie left-hander Kyle Harrison have flashed impressive stuff this spring, but the Giants will be banking on their ability to be efficient, too.

With Beck unable to pitch Wednesday, non-roster invitee Spencer Howard will start Wednesday’s exhibition against the Oakland Athletics at Mesa. Howard, 27, is a former Philadelphia Phillies top prospect who has a 7.20 ERA in 38 big-league games (29 starts), but the right-hander has impressed the coaching staff with his side work thus far.

(Photo: Andy Kuno / San Francisco Giants / Getty Images)

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