Jung-ho Kang has quickly established himself as the best Korean import since the Kia Sorento. Before the start of the season, Steve and I discussed our expectations for Kang. Both of us had him penciled in for a bench role this year, especially due to our perceived difficulty he would have transitioning to both American culture and Major League pitching.
But Kang has far exceeded our expectations and those of virtually everyone else, perhaps even those that work in the gorgeous ballpark located on Federal Street. His line to date is .291 AVG/.364 OBP/.449 SLG (132 wRC+, 2.7 WAR). Even more impressively, Kang’s defense at 3B has been a revelation; his throws cross the diamond with high velocity and laser-like precision. And with Jordy Mercer’s knee injury, Kang has filled in more than capably at shortstop. He may not have the same range as Mercer, but it’s more than adequate, especially since his strong arm plays well.
Prior to the start of the season, Kris Bryant was a nearly-unanimous choice to win NL Rookie of the Year. Once the season started, the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson inserted himself into the conversation (his 21 HR lead all NL rookies) and it became a two-man race. But as the weather got warmer and warmer, Bryant and Pederson both start to cool off, creating an opening for others to throw their hat into the ring. Here’s the season stats for the top five NL rookie hitters, sorted by Fangraphs’ WAR:
Unheralded rookie Matt Duffy (Giants) has held down 3B for them after Casey McGehee did not pan out. He leads all qualified NL rookies in batting average and has been your typical all-around-solid Giants player, even if never made a Baseball America Top 100. OF Randal Grichuk (Cardinals) came over in an 2013 offseason trade for David Freese and has been a solid contributor for the Cardinals in 2015. He leads all NL rookies in wRC+ with a 152, indicating he has created 52% more offense than the average player.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are two rookie NL pitchers that warrant inclusion in the conversation, as well — Noah Syndergaard and Chris Heston. The Mets’ Syndergaard has barnstormed the league in 15 starts with 9.51 K/9, 1.90 BB/9 and a 2.66 ERA/2.78 FIP that indicates this isn’t a fluke. The Giants’ Heston, like Duffy also unheralded, has a shiny no-hitter on his resume and has taken 21 starts for them on the bump, leading to an eye-catching 11 wins and a 3.24 ERA/3.22 FIP.
And then there is Jung-ho Kang. He doesn’t lead any major category, but he’s right in the mix for batting average (.291), wRC+ (131), and unlike Bryant/Pederson is getting hotter as the season moves along. His month of July was near-historic for the Pirates’ franchise records of rookies — .379 AVG/.443 OBP/.621 SLG (1064 OPS, 201 wRC+). As mentioned above, his defense has been more than solid enough for me to consider keeping him as the starting SS when Mercer returns. I’m willing to sacrifice a modicum of defense for what I view as a major offensive upgrade over Mercer, especially if Mercer’s knee is going to reduce his range to a level in the same neighborhood as Kang’s current level. Mercer would make an excellent late-inning defensive replacement and part-time starter down the stretch. It’s hard for me to take such a hot bat, like what Kang has been swinging of late, out of the lineup.
To me it seems like Kang will garner significant NL ROY votes, but not enough to overcome the pre-season inertia of Kris Bryant, the early season numbers of Joc Pederson, and the hard-charging narrative of the Mets’ resurgence, due in part to Noah Syndergaard. It should also be noted that there may be some built-in bias towards Kang’s age (28) and the fact that he played professionally in the Korean Baseball Organization previously.
Regardless of where he ends up, though, Kang has made Neal Huntington and his scouting staff look prescient. His dirt cheap contract of 4 yr/$11M, with a $5.5M team option in 2019, appears to be grand larceny if all holds. He may not get an award, but the Pirates are winners thanks to Jung-ho Kang.