On April 28, Jung Ho Kang owned a .182/.208/.227 slash line. He had one extra-base hit to his name. It was way early, sure, but it was also worth wondering if the Korean import’s game was going to translate to the big leagues.
Really, his bat has done the talking. Entering play Tuesday, Kang’s slash line stands at a robust .285./357/.439. He’s become the Pittsburgh Pirates‘ everyday shortstop and has also seen time at third, helping cover for the Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison losses because of injury.
Who saw that coming? In a league that features highly touted studs such as Joc Pederson, Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa and Noah Syndergaard, to name a few, how did Kang (and Duffy, for that matter) vault to the front of the line?
In Kang’s case, the answer is mostly opportunity.
Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press
Kang has helped fill the void created by injuries to infielders Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison.
Early in the year, Kang filled a utility role for the Bucs, and his at-bats came sparingly. He’s seen more action as the season has worn on, and now with Mercer and Harrison sidelined, he’s been recast as a key offensive cog for Pittsburgh.
It’s not as if Kang exploded out of nowhere. He was a legitimate force in the Korean Baseball Organization, slamming 40 home runs and posting a 1.198 OPS for the Nexen Heroes in 2014.
For as well as Kang had hit in Korea and for as little as he was being paid in Pittsburgh, the fact remained that he was coming from a league that had no precedent of producing MLB-quality position players, and entering his age-28 season, Kang was fully formed as a player. If he didn’t hit right away, odds were that he never would.
Kang was the scary kind of unknown, both because of his age and his origins.
So the 28-year-old slugger went to the Pirates on a modest four-year, $11 million deal, plus a $5 million posting fee. The move didn’t command all-caps headlines at the time, and even with his production since arriving in Pennsylvania, Kang is flying under the radar.
Check out this list of the top 10 rookies in each league compiled recently by ESPN Insider Jim Bowden. Kang squeaks on at No. 10 in the NL, despite having a higher WAR than every player above him save Duffy (who checks in at No. 6).
Yes, Bowden is factoring in future potential. Still, it feels like Kang is being underrated and unsung.
If he keeps swinging it like he has been, that will change soon.
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Kang took home NL Rookie of the Month honors in July with a 1.064 OPS.
“The information we had on him was that he was an incredibly prepared hitter,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said of his prize acquisition, per Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “But watching tape of a pitcher is one thing. Seeing him live is something different. He’s shown the ability to make some adjustments.”
Will Jung Ho Kang win NL Rookie of the Year?
It’s entirely possible, even probable, that the league will adjust back. After a scalding July—during which he hit .379 with a 1.064 OPS and won NL Rookie of the Month honors—he’s surely raised the eyebrows of every opposing pitcher in baseball.
With his experience and professional, disciplined approach, though, Kang figures to keep right on raking as the Pirates push toward a third consecutive postseason appearance.
He looks comfortable. He looks like he belongs. Clearly those April struggles are a distant footnote.
“We believed in the player,” Huntington told Cook. “We believed he would come through it. He’s rewarded us.”
With Kang stroking it like a seasoned big leaguer and forcing his way into the thick of the NL Rookie of the Year race, that’s putting it mildly.