In Jaunary 2015, the Pirates did something that was very unusual for low market teams—they signed an unproven player who was surrounded by uncertainty.
Jung Ho Kang’s contract was for four years worth $11 million, but also included a $5.5M club option following the 2019 season. However, this was not the only expense that the Pirates were going to incur. Along with the contract, they were responsible for a $5M million fee that they were required to pay before the negotiation process could begin. Since this was something the Pirates did not normally do, Pirates fans were ecstatic. Kang was tearing up the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) where he hit .356 with 40 home runs while only playing in 117 games. Despite the ballparks in Korea being much smaller than those of the major league, the Pirates felt that his power would translate well.
At the time of the signing, the Pirates had Josh Harrison at third base, Neil Walker at second base, and Jordy Mercer at shortstop. The infield was crowded, so Kang was not expected to get immediate reps. When a player is coming from a completely different league, this was the smart way to get him acclimated. He finished the ’15 season with 467 plate appearances, meaning he actually earned himself a good amount of playing time. In those 467 plate appearances, he slashed .287/.355/.461, which were great numbers for a player who had previously only played in the KBO. To compliment his offensive ability, he also added defensive value by saving the team four runs while playing third base.
In September of that rookie season, Kang suffered a season-ending injury that he incurred while playing second base. It was a devastating blow for the Pirates, and it was disappointing to see a player come into the league only to be hurt soon after. However, he came back in 2016 with fire, smashing two home runs in his debut. During the rest of the season, he slashed .255/.354/.513, which were impressive numbers for someone coming off of a serious injury. People began to realize that if the Pirates were going to make a playoff push in the coming years, Kang was going to be a huge part of it.
Upon first glance, one could argue that Pirates fans have not even seen the best version of Kang. In 2016, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .273. Being that league average is around .300, Kang was seeing a significant amount of “bad luck.” This suggests that his batting average, which sat at .255, should see some improvement when he returns in 2018. Another statistic that should be examined is his isolated power (ISO), which rose from .173 to .258 in his second season. At the time, that placed him inside the top 20 in the league in terms of ISO. Some of the names that Kang was ahead of in this aspect were Giancarlo Stanton, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rizzo and Manny Machado.
When players come over to the major leagues from different countries, they often have difficulty adjusting to the style of play. With Kang there were some growing pains, but overall he adjusted quite well. In Korea, players often have high leg kicks that generate more power, but sometimes prevents them from keeping balance throughout their swings. When Kang was signed, one of the biggest concerns was that his high leg kick would not translate well to the major leagues.
I want to highlight some mechanical adjustments that Kang made that helped him succeed in the major leagues. Below I have included two photos of Kang’s batting stance. The first photo of Kang is from his time in the KBO and the second photo is of Kang during his 2016 season with the Pirates.
Notice how he has extended his arms while at the same time lowering his hands. This adjustment has a tendency to shorten a player’s swing, which allows them to have a more direct path to the ball. We have seen this adjustment a few times in the major leagues already with players such as Eugenio Suarez and Jean Segura. Segura’s swing adjustment was much more drastic than Kang’s, but they are still similar cases. Below are photos of Segura’s adjustments. The first photo is from 2013, and the second photo is from 2017.
This mechanical adjustment is obviously much more drastic than Kang’s was, but it is important to understand why adjustments like this are effective. Moving a players hand slot lower allows them to be quicker to the ball. For Kang, it allowed him to keep his high leg kick by enabling him to be quicker to the ball. This prevented Kang from losing the power that the Pirates had paid for. Kang was already very talented, so kudos to him, and Pirates management, for making these adjustments in order to ease his transition to the majors easier.
It could be argued that Kang’s value to the Pirates is unmatched. On the open market, a “win” is worth approximately $8 million. Meaning that one win above replacement (WAR) is worth $8 million per season. Kang has 6.1 WAR through his first two years with the Pirates, even though he has barely surpassed enough games to make up a full season. The value that he has provided totals $48.8 million, but his contract only costs $16 million (and the organization is saving this year’s $2.75M salary of Kang’s contract due to his visa troubles). I would argue that if he eventually plays for a full season, his upside is a 5.0 win player worth $40 million. Judging by the fact that the Pirates are ranked 29th throughout the major leagues in isolated power, they severely could use Kang’s above average power.