What if I told you there’s a shortstop in his 20s, available for presumably less than Ervin Santana money, coming off a year in which he hit 40 dingers with a four-digit OPS? It’s true — all of those things are true. The shortstop’s name is Jung-Ho Kang, and he really did have such a season. It just didn’t take place where you were looking.
It did take place where several different major-league organizations were looking. Maybe you can try to think of Kang as the Troy Tulowitzki of Korea, and while that’s a stretch, it’s pretty damn promising, at least until the "of Korea" part. There’s no debating Kang’s record; the 27-year-old just batted .356 while slugging .739 for Nexen in the KBO. He owns a career OPS of .886. In 2012, he finished second in the league in OPS. In 2013, he finished ninth. In 2014, he finished first, by dozens of points. The real concern is simple: Kang is trying to become the first KBO position player to reach the major leagues. So such a transition would be unprecedented.
It’s true, we have Hyun-Jin Ryu, but then Ryu was (and is) a starting pitcher. As far as Korean hitters are concerned, Shin-Soo Choo and Hee-Seop Choi have each had success, but then they were raised within big-league organizations, so they didn’t come over from the KBO as vets. That’s why so many people wonder about Kang’s potential. This is why he could be a bargain, and this is why he could be a bust.
Kang has been posted — following the same procedure Japanese players used to have to follow — and Friday, Kang’s posting window closes, and we’ll find out which team placed the high bid. Certainly, there will be several bids, as Kang is too interesting not to pursue at all. But this isn’t going to result in Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka money. Kang is going to have to set some precedents, and he’ll be doing so coming from a league considered to be inferior to the Japanese leagues, which, in turn, are considered to be inferior to MLB, in terms of total player talent.
Offensively, Kang is coming off what appears to be a career year. He hit those 40 homers, surpassing a previous high of 25. He established highs in pretty much every meaningful category, and without question, he was terrific. But then, it is worth considering the environment. I don’t mean Kang’s home park — I mean Kang’s entire league. Three seasons ago, a Korean baseball game featured an average of about eight and a half runs. Two seasons ago, that rose to nine and a half. Last season, it jumped all the way up past 11. What was allegedly a more lively ball certainly played like a more lively ball, and offensive numbers league-wide skyrocketed. So instead of looking at Kang’s raw statistics, it’s better to look at his statistics compared to the yearly league average.
That’s what this graph does. This is simply a graph of Kang’s number over the league-average number, for each stat in each year. There’s walk rate, there’s strikeout rate, there’s batting average, and there’s isolated power, which is simply batting average subtracted from slugging percentage. Average, of course, is 100 percent, and marked by the dotted line.
You can see Kang’s power absolutely take off in 2012. With it, he’s improved his ability to hit for average, and he’s also drawn more walks. Quietly, Kang has also struck out more often. It’s the one blemish in his record, if you want to call it that. Just last season, Kang struck out 21 percent of the time. The league average was just under 17 percent.
On the one hand, we can’t expect Kang’s power to totally translate to the majors. On the other hand, it’s a legitimate skill of his. Kang appears capable of hitting big-league home runs, with a big swing load and power to the pull side and up the middle. Here are a bunch of video highlights, and while Kang hits some wall-scrapers, he’s also responsible for his share of no-doubters, and he can hit a big-league baseball 400 feet. He just has to catch up to it.
The easiest way to summarize the risk is this: Kang just finished second in the league in home runs. In third, with 37, was one Eric Thames. Thames also finished with a four-digit OPS, and in North American Triple-A, he slugged .506. Thames, in the majors, has slugged .431. Meanwhile, Yamaico Navarro just hit 31 homers in Korea, with an OPS of .969. He was worse than that in Triple-A, and he never did anything in the bigs. This is the evidence that the KBO is relatively low on overall talent: Thames has mashed there. Navarro has mashed there. Brett Pill, Jorge Cantu, and Felix Pie just had strong seasons. The best pitchers in Korea aren’t the best pitchers in the States, and the worst pitchers in Korea might not even be professionals in the States.
Kang’s North American ceiling isn’t 40 home runs. Maybe it’s 20. The power is real, but the swing hasn’t been consistently tested by quality stuff. They say Dayan Viciedo has incredible raw power. There’s a difference between raw power and game power, and perhaps in the majors, Kang wouldn’t be able to fully tap into his strength.
But, anyway, let’s move on. There are also questions about Kang’s defense. Before proceeding, here are some highlights of Kang playing defense:
You know what’s biased? A highlight reel. Highlights are selective for the better plays, but we can still glean a little information. Some evaluators don’t believe Kang can play shortstop. Right there is video evidence of Kang playing shortstop. There’s no such thing as a player who can’t play short. The question’s about playing it well. I think you can see in the clips that Kang has the arm for the position. At one point he used to be a catcher. So it becomes about his hands and range and instincts.
At six feet, he’s not oversized, although he’s a little thicker so some people don’t think Kang looks the part. It’s readily obvious he’s not Andrelton Simmons. It sounds like there are enough concerns that Kang probably isn’t an above-average defender, as his range is unremarkable and he sometimes fights the baseball with his glove, but an average shortstop would be a useful shortstop, and it at least seems like Kang deserves an extended opportunity before getting moved to third base or right field. There are fewer questions about his ability in those spots.
Jhonny Peralta doesn’t look the part, but he gets the job done. Juan Uribe never looked the part, but he got the job done when he was a shortstop. There’s talk that, say, the Mets aren’t going to be aggressive on Kang, because they don’t trust his shortstop defense, but it’s hard to say how truthful they’re being, since these thoughts have been offered with Kang still being posted. Teams have a vested interest in downplaying their own interest in Kang, because they don’t want to bump up the price. We’ll learn more when the window closes.
For the fun of it, let’s try a few assumptions. Let’s say Kang in the majors would strike out at a higher rate than average. But let’s give him at least decent power. We’ll assume he isn’t a great defender at short. Maybe he’d profile a little like the Alex Gonzalezes. Maybe we’re looking at a Jose Hernandez or Bill Hall. More optimistically, he could profile as an average-defensive Jose Valentin, or even Jhonny Peralta or Ian Desmond. Desmond might be the ceiling, if Kang demonstrates above-average batted-ball authority. Something like Valentin would be more realistic, and then you’re looking at an average regular shortstop in his peak years.
We know that’s not a lock, but it’s not inconceivable, so, how much do you pay for the right to find out? I hesitate to draw this comparison, but Yasmany Tomas signed for six years and $68.5 million, with an opt-out clause. A lot of talent has come out of Cuba lately, which boosted Tomas’ price, but if you just look at the player, he’s almost pure power, with questions on whether he can even play anywhere in the outfield. Kang doesn’t have Tomas’ power, but he does have real power, and he seems to have greater defensive value and versatility. Tomas got that much money as an unknown, supported by predecessors. Kang doesn’t have predecessors, which is why he could turn out to be a steal. Teams will be cautious until there’s proof that players can come from Korea and hit.
So soon we’ll find out who’s feeling bold. Kang will end up costing tens of millions of dollars, but he won’t cost five or six dozen. There are some teams still looking for a shortstop, and there are still others looking for a second or third baseman. It doesn’t get much more unpredictable than Kang, but if he can be anything even close to his ceiling, he’ll end up paid far less than he’s worth. Eventually, a position player will come over from the KBO and hit. Perhaps it won’t be this one. But in a market where a Cuban unknown can sign for almost $70 million, Kang seems like a fine gamble at something like half that.