Jung Ho Kang is Turning Into a Huge Steal For the Pirates

Looking back to this past off-season, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Pirates was whether or not Jung Ho Kang’s outstanding performance in the Korean Baseball Organization would translate over to the Major League level.

The questions were plentiful. He’d never experienced velocity in the KBO like he would see in Major League Baseball. How would he adjust?

The cutting movement, the sinking movement and the different pitch manipulations he was familiar with in the KBO were nothing close to what is thrown at hitters in Major League Baseball. Will he be able to barrel up the baseball on a consistent basis?

The questions continued on the defensive side of the ball. Did he have the range and arm-strength to play shortstop in the Major Leagues, and would he be able to thrive in the complex defensive shifting scheme that the Pirates employ?

Not only has Kang answered all of these questions so far, he’s done so definitively.

Many questioned that Kang’s bat-speed and the well-documented leg-kick he incorporates into his swing would prevent him from being successful against high-end velocity pitchers, especially the velocity that is seen coming out of opposing teams’ bullpens late in games. Kang has answered that question and then some. According to Daren Willmen, the developer of BaseballSavant.com, Kang has the highest batting average in the MLB against fastballs 95+ mph (16-for-32, .500).

Kang has also continued to adapt to the variety of different offerings he has seen at the Major League level as this season has progressed. Since the start of July, he ranks tenth in the National League in hard-hit rate, hitting the ball 41.2% of the time according to FanGraphs.

Defensively, the metrics point to Kang as being a league-average fielder, but his versatility to play both third base and shortstop has provided the Pirates with much-needed flexibility, as Tim pointed out in his “First Pitch” feature last night. His performance at shortstop has been extremely dependable, but his performance at third base is what has been most surprising.

“The plays at third base — we like the hands, we like the feet, we like the arm,” GM Neal Huntington said. “The transition to third base and how smoothly that’s gone — sure that’s been a very pleasant…surprised isn’t the right word…but its been a very pleasant outcome. He’s handled himself exceptionally well at third base.”

Kang’s adjustment to the MLB game has been extremely impressive, and his teammates have taken notice.

“I think the biggest thing you were kind of worried about [Kang] adjusting to was the speed of the game at the Major League level,” Neil Walker said. “The relievers coming in throwing 95 MPH and above, the breaking stuff, dealing with balls off of the bat at third base, things like that. He had a little bit of a period where he just had to adjust to that, and [the coaches] did a good job of preparing him for that. He makes adjustments really well and I think that’s the most important thing at the Major League level, making adjustments quickly. He obviously has the bat speed, he has the mental approach, he can play defense – the guy has some serious tools.”

Overall, Kang has been one of the most productive offensive shortstops in the National League, as Forbes to Federal showed last night on Twitter.

His .285 batting average and .363 OBP rank among the top MLB shortstops. In July, he’s been as important as any player on the Pirates’ roster in the wake of the injuries to Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer. Kang’s .355 batting average, to go along with a .977 OPS in July, have provided the Pirates with the dependable middle-of-the-order bat that they desperately needed, especially with the injuries that the team had suffered.

This success has not come as a surprise to Kang himself, who has played aggressively and confidently since the first day of Spring Training.

“I don’t think it surprised him,” Hurdle said after last night’s victory against Washington. “He’s probably the least surprised of anyone in this room. He believes he can play. He can take a swing that looks funny and then show up and hit a bullet somewhere. You watch him handle himself on defense. He’s steady, he’s consistent, and he’s dependable.”

The dependability of Kang is as significant now as it has ever been considering the Pirates’ current injury situation. The addition of Aramis Ramirez, along with the pending return of Harrison and Mercer from injury, will provide the Pirates with four legitimate Major League players to occupy the left side of the infield. As big as the depth problem looked to be heading into this week, it will be a strength heading into the end of August and beyond.

“That’s just the sign of a complete team, when we have options of guys like [Kang] to go to,” Mercer said. “When somebody goes down, we can plug-in a guy right away and not miss a beat. I think that’s the sign of a good team for sure.”

  • Kang has been a pleasant addition to the roster, nothing great, just a steady consistent ballplayer with a lot of heart and hustle.

    • Hmmm.

      How would you define “great”? He has the third best WAR on the team for the season – with over 100 fewer ABs than the regulars. Strong wRC+ and has handled moving from SS to 3rd and back pretty well. This from a guy many thought should spend the season at AAA learning the “game”. A 2.5+ WAR player is worth $15-$20M as a free agent. He is under contract for the next 3 years with an option year for $11M. Maybe he is not a great player in your mind – but he is certainly a great bargain for the Bucs

      • I would define great as guys like cutch, pujols,trout,cabrera ect. You know guys who have sustained success over a number of years. Not guys who have played four months of big league ball. Do I think kang has a chance to be great? Yes. Just not yet.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    July 24, 2015 9:34 pm

    I have said this more than once on this site, Kang may have been the best value free agent signing of the off season – and where would we be without him? He has proved to be a very good hitter, who hits to all fields.

    No one could have expected his Korean power numbers to carryover, but he has exceeded my expectations for BA and overall quality of his game. He’s not the best SS in the world and he makes a lot of errors there, but he is an above average third baseman and I like his versatility. I bet he could play RF at PNC and not embarrass himself.

    • http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/breaking-down-jung-ho-kang/ If you haven’t seen this analysis from February, check it out. Dan Farnsworth isn’t surprised !

      • He got the .280+ part right…wouldn’t it have been nice if he got the 25 homers part too. Really, though, I’m happy with the hitter he is…he’ll probably get to double digits for the year in homers and could hit 15 in a full season going forward…it’s his plate patience, advanced approach, and solid overall contact that makes him a hitter I like to watch. He plays all out all game…he’s a huge piece of this team for sure.

        • pnc park will hurt his hr numbers, but the park hurts all rh power hitters.

        • It feels ironic to type this but Kang is “old school” in all the right ways. Hustles every night, fundamentally sound, never loses concentration, concentrates on hitting the ball hard where it is pitched. Let’s hope he doesn’t get spoiled by success or start swinging for the fences like some of his peers. If everybody learned from his plate discipline we would be a better team.

  • Talking about another player getting comfortable….Polanco might just be hitting his stride…he’s looked so badly over-matched so many times and then against one of the best pitchers in the game, Max Scherzer, he has a 12 pitch AB and hits a game tying homer….boy oh boy wouldn’t it be great to get the player we were hoping on/dreaming on last year actually producing like that?

    • That was a beautiful swing too.

    • Darkstone42
      July 24, 2015 9:09 pm

      He’s looked good for a while now, even before the numbers started to come around. Hitting the ball hard a lot, now the hits are starting to come.

      • A hit and 2-out-RBI off the young lefty there…really looks like he’s finally getting his approach right and getting back on his feet.

      • And taking more walks.

    • Agree. Polanco is a diamond in the rough. His speed on the bases and bat speed will make him an All Star player in MLB.

    • Looks like his lower half is finally getting in sync with what his upper half is doing.

  • As he learns the league, I gotta think Kang is only gonna get better. You gotta think next year we should just plant him as either the starting shortstop or 3B.

  • Darkstone42
    July 24, 2015 8:04 pm

    When Kang’s in the lineup regularly, he’s been among our most consistent hitters. The contact skill is legitimate, and if he starts putting it in the air more regularly, I think we’ll start to see the power, too, and he’ll be a middle-of-the-order bat for the length of his contract.

  • Hey Neal, go get Byung-Ho Park and fix the 1b situation!

    • If the numbers look to translate well and if Kang and scouts think that Park has the tools of Kang to be successful, including bat speed, then sure. He would take some time to translate…

      • I’d rather have Josh Bell at .290/.360/.450/.810 with 10-15 homers and 30+ doubles.

        • I agree.

        • Darkstone42
          July 24, 2015 9:11 pm

          Sure, but until he’s ready, Byung-ho Park would be a nice guy to have. And his power off the bench could be nice, too.

        • And exactly how is Josh Bell going to help the 2016 Pirates when he’s in Indianapolis?

          • He won’t be in Indy all year. I guess I’m just worried about a potentially inferior player blocking him at first.

            • Based on how NH approaches top position prospects, I think you can count on Bell getting at least 400 PAs in AAA. I wouldn’t count on him being here until perhaps a late August call up.

  • Can you imagine if we had lost him to the Cards (who supposedly came in 2nd in the bidding?)

    • That’s good stuff…I honestly had NEVER heard that bit of information. But since you bring it up…we’d have been talking and hearing about how cheap the Pirates brass are for the next 4+ years. Haha

  • His 285 batting average and .363 OBP rank among the top MLB shortstops.

    Pete…are those his stats strictly as a SS or is that his overall stats?

    • I’ll jump in there Foo…those are overall. The only reason I know is bc I was looking them up post game last night.

    • Those are his overall stats