First Pitch: How Jung-ho Kang’s Return Impacts the Pirates

When the Pirates optioned Jason Rogers to Triple-A on Wednesday night, it looked like Jung-ho Kang was set to return. Kang needs to return this weekend, as his 20 day rehab time is almost up, so this isn’t a big surprise. The news was confirmed by Francisco Cervelli today, who snapped a picture of himself with Kang traveling for the weekend series.

Kang didn’t have a great rehab in Triple-A. He went 6-for-40 with one homer. He did finish 3-for-12 in his final few games, but that’s telling when three straight 1-for-4 games with singles looks like a good run. That said, Triple-A rehab results don’t always tell the entire story, and the results can be immediately different when a player joins the big league club.

With Kang returning, here’s a quick look at some interesting story lines that will take place with the team after the move.

Kang’s Impact on the Batting Order

Last year, Kang spent most of his time in the number five spot in the lineup, with his second most time coming in the cleanup spot. The Pirates have shuffled their lineup approach around, optimizing the order by prioritizing on-base percentage. Kang was outstanding in this regard last year, while also adding some power. If that player returns, then the cleanup spot would be great for him.

We don’t know yet if the 2015 version of Kang will return, and the rehab appearance didn’t give any positive signs. I think it would be best if Kang starts off lower in the order, to ease him back in. This might give an excuse to move Gregory Polanco up in the order, putting him at the number four spot, and putting Kang sixth to start the year.

If Kang’s offense does return, and if Polanco continues being one of the best hitters on the team in the cleanup spot, then the Pirates would have a very good problem on their hands.

David Freese Becoming a Utility Player

Since Spring Training, we’ve known the plan for David Freese when Kang returned — he would transition to becoming the right-handed part of the first base platoon. Based on his usage this week, he could also see time as a backup at second base. And he will almost certainly get some starts at third, since the Pirates won’t bring Kang back as an everyday player immediately.

Freese has been an outstanding pickup. He replaced Kang by hitting for a .291/.376/.388 line in 117 plate appearances, while showing some decent defense at third. That has been a huge value for the $3 M he received. He’ll continue playing a big role until Kang is ready for everyday time, and having a guy like that off the bench shows strong depth.

When Kang does return to everyday time, it will be interesting to see where Freese gets his playing time. The Pirates don’t face a lot of lefties, since almost all of the starters in the NL Central are right-handed. That limits him at first base, and you’d think he’d be limited at second, since he’s only played there once. Perhaps the Pirates can ease Kang back all year, with Freese getting two starts a week at third throughout the year.

Boosting an Already Great Lineup

The Pirates have been one of the best offenses in the majors this year. They rank first in OBP, second in wOBA and wRC+, and fifth in runs scored. They will drop down from these levels. Their league leading OBP is at .366, which is unsustainable throughout the year. So while that will drop, Kang’s addition could make it so that it won’t drop drastically, and should remain at the top of the league.

Kang also provides stronger depth for the team. As mentioned above, David Freese now becomes a valuable guy off the bench. Jason Rogers didn’t show much in his time in the majors, but still remains an interesting guy to call on from Triple-A. The Pirates also have a few infield prospects in Triple-A who now find themselves the third or fourth best option at many positions around the infield, now that Kang is back.

The Pirates not only have one of the best lineups in baseball, but they’ve got a deep lineup, which means they should maintain their high performance even when the inevitable injuries occur.

**Prospect Watch: Holmes Labors Through Morning Start, Hayes and Polo Go Yard. A second poor outing in a row for Holmes, while two of the best young hitters in West Virginia hit home runs.

**Keller and Waddell Win Pitcher of the Month Awards. No surprise here in either case, as both pitchers were untouchable last month.

**The New Pitch That is Giving Luis Heredia Success in the Bullpen. Heredia pitched a shutout inning tonight, continuing his success in the bullpen. I broke down his evolution from a top prospect to a non-prospect, to a guy who could be working his way back on the radar now.

**David Todd Podcast: Breaking Down the Horrible Cubs Series, Plus Prospect Talk. My weekly radio segment with David Todd.

**Morning Report: Some Decent Prospects are Off to Slow Starts. John Dreker looks at some prospects who aren’t having the best start to their 2016 seasons.

  • It will be great to have the extra power to go with all of that on base.

  • Darkstone42
    May 6, 2016 3:47 pm

    Why has no one addressed what’s really important here?

    Cervelli’s right. Kang’s hair *is* better.

  • Big “if” but should Kang come back and hit close to as well as he did last year I’d keep the lineup the same and slot him in at 3 behind Cutch where Freese has been. It’d be nice to see Joyce get a few more starts too. His at bats look great even when he is getting out and provides extra rest for Cutch, marte and polanco

    • Unlikely we see last year’s Kang before the 2nd half, if we are lucky. He will struggle greatly for a while, terrible terrible knee injury he suffered, may never be the same.

    • Id go Kang at 3 to start, but if Kang starts showing the hitting he did last year id move him to 4.

      You’d be following the lineup optimization idea with your best 2 hitters at 2 and 4, while not losing anything at the 3 with Marte having good power and enough average to provide a lethal 1-6.

      Positive thing, assuming Kang returns to form a bit, about Kang 4th is when he doesnt drive in runs he gets on base more than Marte and allows Cervelli and Polanco more chances with men on base.

      • Cervelli needs to move up in the order due to his consistent high OBP. If Jaso continues slumping play Freese against some RHP too. My preferred lineup:

        • The idea behind this type of lineup is that you have a high OBP guy at the 5, and the 3 is less crucial.

          So Marte at 5 with Cervelli at 3 is backwards, since they are following the idea of lineup optimization. 5 is a key OBP spot, and 3 is lesser. In fact, Marte at 3 is fine since he gets on enough with good power that he isnt a negative there but allows Kang at the 4 and Cervelli at the 5 (spots where you want your 2nd best hitter and a quality OBP option).

          Even if Kang is 6, you want Cervelli 5.

          • I think Marte at 5 puts him in his best mindset to perform. Okay, his OBP is a little less than Cervelli, but his O2BP is better because of his stolen base ability and his higher SLG. That serves hitting in 5 better as you only have 3 hitters before the P and they are of lower quality. Marte will score more runs in 5 than Cervelli and more importantly due to his better ability to drive the ball he will drive more people in. The best use of Cervelli is to have him on base ahead of what power the Pirates have. Actually I would be fine with Cervelli leading off and Freese playing first and batting down in the lineup.

            • Saying Marte’s OBP is “a little” less than Cervelli’s is being really coy.

              Nearly 50 points isnt a little, and career stuff shows Marte wont touch Cervelli’s OBP numbers.

              Again, lineup optimization is the idea that you want a guy getting on a ton at the 5 to set up the rest, not get on and try to steal. If Kang or Polanco is hitting 6th, you want someone getting on a ton for them and letting them drive balls deep.

              2 and 4 are your best hitters, 1 and 5 gets on a ton, and 3-6-7-8 go in order of quality of hitters. Id entertain Polanco at 3 and Marte at 6, but i want the 2nd highest on base option at the 5 to set things up for the bottom.

              Thats not what old school types will assume is best, but its the idea behind optimizing the order in this strategy. Best hitter at 2, OBP at 1 and 5, 2nd best hitter at 4.

              • Thanks Luke, I understand the strategy, I just don’t buy into it as fully as you do. I just don’t think that there is a “one size fits all” order optimization. The results will vary with the make up of the team. That’s okay, matter of preference.

                • Very true, i just think this team was designed to do it well.

                  You’ve got 2 high OBP types with Jaso and Cervelli, 2 overall quality hitters in Cutch and Kang, and Marte and Polanco able to fill out the 3 and 6 really well.

                  A really well balanced, high OBP type lineup 1-6.

            • With the way Mercer is battling in the leadoff spot against LHP, you don’t touch it. Keep Cervelli at 5 and Freeze wherever at 3 or in the back.

  • Joshuatree
    May 6, 2016 9:59 am

    It’s a smart tactic to bring Kang back right after the Cubs series. Kang provides a morale boost in the clubhouse that should allow them to move on. Technically his last rehab start is Tuesday but 2 of the AAA games he probably would have been pitch hitting only. Kang can collect himself at the start of this road trip and the Pirates will bring him along easily. I’m with Dreker on Kang being at the back of the lineup but I don’t see him starting right away. I see him pinch hitting a couple games first and I can see him being taken out after 5-6 innings for Freese when starting a game early on. Welcome back Kang!

  • The offense numbers were boosted by facing Arizona, Colorado and Milwaukee pitching staffs this early going.
    But then again, you play who is on the schedule at the time. Let’s see how they do going forward against better staffs.

  • I am happy that Kang is back, but it won’t matter if we don’t start getting some good SP.

    Btw, last I checked, Volquez and Happ continue to pitch well. 🙂

  • Couple of things….If Kang hits 6th and GP hits cleanup where does Marte bat?

    Also, why would you throw the label “Super-Utility” at Freese? Doesn’t one have to play all over the diamond, including the OF to be considered a super-utility guy? Being able to play 3rd and 1st and maybe 2nd would just make him a utility guy and not a super-utility.

    • I threw that label on him because it was late and I had just finished watching Civil War, and I wanted to read a bunch of articles about the movie, and I’ve gotten so used to saying Super Utility with all the minor league guys that it just became routine to type that without thinking.

      • I appreciate the reply….Do you think he will be in the lineup tonight?

  • I am a little worried about Kang’s numbers right now.
    How about hitting him in the clutch #8 spot and move
    Mercer up? Or is that further taking a chance of messing
    up what at times has been a really good line-up and
    Mercer getting some clutch RBI’s.

  • scrappy2499
    May 6, 2016 8:07 am

    It may be a good time to pause the Cutch batting second experiment…He has been the perennial #3 in the line up and it almost makes me wonder if subconsciously that Cutch is resenting batting #2 and effecting his entire play. He hasn’t looked good in the field or batting since they left Florida.

    • With the utmost respect to the person and player that Cutch is, if he were doing that its embarrassing for him.

      • I agree w Luke. If he didn’t want to bat #2, he wouldn’t be doing it. He believes in the system. As for his AWFULLY slow starts when he looks like 2015 Josh Harrison, hes not getting laid or something bc his plate patience of old isnt there. If he’s looking to get going like last year and striking out 4 TIMES in one game doesn’t change nothing then I’m out of solutions. Wake up Cutch!

        • Darkstone42
          May 6, 2016 3:44 pm

          Cutch gets into strikeout slumps from time to time and looks really bad when he’s in them. Baseball seasons are long, and there’s a lot of up and down in them. He’s in a down right now, and it’s really obvious because there hasn’t been an up to mask it.

    • He’s struggled every year at the start of the season. This year is no different. I wouldn’t blame it on the batting order at all.

      • scrappy2499
        May 6, 2016 2:34 pm

        I’m not just blaming the hitting as I know he is a slow starter in April…But his fielding has been way below his usual standards I would say. His plate patience is off too. He looks like he is pressing trying to turn it around. I’m not sure what it is that is affecting his entire game not just one facet of it. The only big difference is his place in the order…Guess I was just thinking out loud trying to come up with a reason…

  • As great as it is to get kang back I think the reality he initially is a drag, rather than a boost to the offense. I watched a lot of him in Indy and most of his at bats looked really poor to me. Hard to envision kang matching freeses 112 Wrc+ he has put up as a pirate his first 4-5 weeks back.

    My hope is we get a good version of kang sometime post all star break.

    • You didn’t dig a deep enough hole with that first comment, genius ?

  • I’m glad Rogers gets optioned so we carry an extra mediocre reliever. Great roster construction

    • That’s all we have John are mediocre pitchers.

      • Yes Lee. While NH has done some excellent work over the years the Winter of 2016 appears not to be his finest effort. The question is will the Pirates be able to overcome shoddy pitching until probably at least June enough to still secure a WC spot.

        • The thing is, the relievers who are struggling the most are the guys who were expected to be good. A.J. Schugel and Kyle Lobstein have xFIPs better than Tony Watson and Arquimedes Caminero. If you send down the extra reliever, you’ve still got a problem with two of your expected best guys struggling, and Jared Hughes not looking good so far.

          • If nh had gone out and signed a 5th starter better than Ryan Vogelsong Nicasio would have greatly improved the pen as was the original plan instead of masquerading as a starter with 2 pitches.

            • Ironically Nicasio has the lowest WHIP among the regular starters and Vogelsong has the lowest WHIP among anyone who has started a game. The real blame is on the shoulders of Liriano, Locke, Niese and even Cole, who are all performing well below expectations.

              • freddylang
                May 7, 2016 1:28 pm

                No, doubt. Cole needs to spend less time chugging beers and yelling at Caps players.

    • How stupid do you feel today after the Fri. night game ?

      • I feel much shame Leo. I’ve always felt stupid compared to beacons of knowledge such as yourself. Lol I feel like you need a stuffed animal or maybe just a hug.

      • I fee real dumb. I’m glad we carry 8 relievers so hurdle isn’t forced to use Melancon or Watson in a tie game in the 9th. Instead he has the luxury of digging into our multitude of quad a arms to save mm for the save. Oh wait

  • Tim: I am hoping that Kang can return to the form he brought to the team last year – we need something right now.

    I like to see offensive numbers, but they are fairly shallow following a 3 game series where we managed 2, 1, and 2 runs at our house against a team we had to beat.

    ” . . . . .optimizing the order by prioritizing on-base percentage.” We were trying to do that, but I would say most Pirate fans would like to see a return to a lineup that reflects the team that won 98 games last year. It was also the lineup that featured Andrew McCutchen in the No. 3 spot in the order where he has been a perennial Top 5 MVP candidate for the 3 or 4 years prior to 2016.

    • Runs per game to date:

      2015: 4.28
      2016: 4.93

      “most Pirate fans would like to see a return to a lineup that reflects the team that won 98 games last year.” So they want less runs to this date? Bold strategy.

      • Especially when this lineup and that 4.93 run average gave the Pirates a winning April for once. Pirates got crushed by the Cubbies in one series and now everyone wants to see a change. They aren’t the only team that has got crushed so far and they won’t be the last. Give some hope people !

      • It looks better because it is a higher number, but when? We have won 6 games where we averaged 9.67 runs a game – fantastic! But on the other hand we have 8 losses already where we have averaged just 1.5 runs a game.

        Our new lineup has shifted the RBI’s downward to our 5, 6, 7, and 8 batters which is not the outcome expected by moving ‘Cutch up to No. 2 in the order. I thought it was stupid when they first mentioned it, because you just do not want to try to institute a fix for something that is not broken. I admit I am too old school to accept making a change like that, but it has not worked folks

        We now have ‘Cutch continuing to struggle, and Jaso has been struggling for at least the last 2 weeks. A quick glance – Last 7 games – Jaso .115 BA, ‘Cutch .207 BA. A change is in order and I would begin by moving ‘Cutch back to #3 and put Gregory Polanco in the No. 2 spot against RHP’s, and JHAY in the #2 against LHP’s

        • Do you really think a superstar like Cutch is mentally fragile enough that moving him up one spot in the line-up is the cause of his troubles? He had a horrendous April last year in the 3 spot – what was the cause of that? Give it time…

        • So basically it hasnt worked because some games we dont score a ton, and a higher number overall dont matter at all.

          Yes, if we ignore the good and look at the bad it aint working. Hell, if we focus on just the 3 games in CHC we should literally fire a few hitters.

          Its working, we are scoring more runs on average, and one month isnt enough to scrap the entire thing for really no valid reason.

          But yes, if that MVP guy would start hitting it’d help.

        • freddylang
          May 7, 2016 1:26 pm

          emjay, if you check out Cutch’s April/May stats the last few years, he’s a slow starter. At least his power is fine early on. One year he had 0 HR going into May. It doesn’t matter where Cutch hits, he will go on a two week tear and suddenly he will be hitting .290 with a .900 OPS.

  • Hopefully he can hit Cubs pitching.

  • I find it difficult to avoid hating Chris Coghlan and Joe Maddon. I’ll hate them more if Kang fails to hit this season.

  • King Kang!!! Awesome for him, and team. Look fir the run to start soon.

  • Hopefully Kang is coming back with his health intact. But if this team is going to compete it’s obvious it’s about Pitching.

  • Welcome back, Mr. Kang!

  • Let’s hope that guy posing with Jake Gyllenhaal can return to form…