When Jung-ho Kang made the jump to the U.S. and Major League Baseball from the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), one of the things he said he wanted to do was open the door for other players in Korea to make the same jump. Based on the results so far this season, a more apt description of what Kang has done would be to compare him to the Kool-Aid man bursting through a wall.
Kang has a .288/.358/.468 line in 452 plate appearances so far this season. He has been worth 4.1 WAR, which is tied for 24th of all position players in baseball, and ranks second on the Pirates. Questions about whether his power could translate to the majors have been partially answered, as he is currently posting 15 home runs and a .180 ISO. That isn’t close to his 40 homers in the KBO last year, but it’s good enough to make him a regular player in the majors. More encouraging is the fact that he’s only got a 20.8% strikeout rate, showing that he has the bat speed to handle MLB pitching without being overmatched.
I asked Kang last weekend, through his translator, whether his success has helped accomplish that goal of opening the door for other Korean hitters.
“I think it helped a little bit, opening the gate for other players in Korea to jump over here,” Kang said through his translator.
Kang said that he thinks a lot of Korean players are following his progress this year, and how he does in the Majors. There was one player of note that I wanted to ask about, and that was Byung-ho Park, who is a first baseman that is expected to be posted this off-season.
“We talk, and he asks me a lot of questions from playing in the Major Leagues, to playing in away games and transportation,” Kang said.
Park and Kang were former teammates with Nexen, and just like Kang, Park put up huge numbers in 2014. He continues putting up big numbers this year, especially in the home run department. Kang’s numbers were better in 2014, but Park’s 2015 totals have matched what Kang put up last year.
Kang only received $11 M over four years, plus the $5 M posting fee. According to FanGraphs, Kang has been worth $32 M this year, which is double what the Pirates paid to get him for those four years. They also have an option for a fifth year at $5.5 M, and up to $750,000 per year in performance bonuses based on plate appearances. The maximum value of his deal, plus the posting fee, would cost the Pirates slightly over $25 M for five years, which is still below what he’s been worth this year.
With that kind of value, it’s easy to imagine that Park will have a much bigger market this off-season than Kang had last season.
“If you look at history, typically the second one has more interest than the first one, whether it’s players coming from another country, or just life in general. When somebody goes first, people tend to follow easier when there’s success in the first go around,” Neal Huntington said. “From our standpoint, Kang has done everything we’ve asked him to do, everything we’ve wanted him to do, and has arguably been everything and more than we hoped he would be so far. We’re looking forward to his continued growth and development.”
Huntington couldn’t comment on the perception of KBO hitters from other MLB teams, but did say that Kang may have opened the door for others to make the jump.
“I think he recognized that he was the first coming through the door, and his hope was to open the door a little bit wider for the next guy to come through, and he might have done that,” Huntington said.
The Pirates did a thorough job of researching Kang and making sure they would put him in the best position possible to make the successful jump to the majors. With a lot of uncertainty about how Kang would make the transition to a new league and a new country, some credit has to be given there.
“We educated ourselves the best of our ability by talking to players who played through that league, and also had competed through the United States,” Clint Hurdle said. “We probably had a half-dozen guys we were able to reach out to, very transparent communication with.”
Hurdle said that they focused on the differences in travel, the level of play, the type of hitter that Kang was, and his ability to make adjustments, among other things. The different travel schedules was also a factor, although Kang said to me that he’s adjusting well to the schedule here. The KBO schedule sees six games per week, with an off-day on Monday.
“We researched it to the best of our ability, and I think one of the things we found out is that we went into our decision making process that this was a very special man,” Hurdle said. “A very committed man. A very tough physical and tough mental guy.”
Kang is definitely the biggest factor here, and we’re still dealing with a sample size of one player. It’s impossible to know if Park or any other player can make the same transition with the same type of success. But that’s probably not going to stop some teams from looking at Kang and dreaming about Park doing the same thing.
As noted above, Park has about the same numbers this year as Kang last year. They’re the same age, which means Park is putting up these KBO numbers one year older than Kang. If he puts up Kang’s MLB numbers in his jump to the majors, then you’re looking at Brandon Belt type offensive production at first base. Belt is currently putting up a 3.9 WAR this season, posting similar numbers as Kang.
The posting fee and contract for Park will be one of the most interesting storylines of the upcoming off-season. The Pirates have shown interest, with two high-level members of the front office scouting Park recently. I don’t know if he’d get the full $20 M for his posting fee, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the fee ends up being more than Kang’s guaranteed $11 M contract. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting much more guaranteed than Kang. All of this would mostly be thanks to Kang’s success this year, showing that the KBO could be a new source for solid MLB hitters.