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.
Jung-Ho city pic.twitter.com/yGQEcnszYB
— Forbes to Federal (@ForbesToFederal) July 24, 2015
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.”