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International Free Agent Profile: Jung-Ho Kang

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The Korean infielder has put up MVP-type numbers in his 2014 season, and has expressed interest in playing in MLB. If the Nexen Heroes decide to post the shortstop, should the Mets pursue him?

Jung-Ho Kang
Jung-Ho Kang
Chung Sung-Jun

Jung-Ho Kang was born in Gwangju, South Korea on April 5, 1987. As a youth, he attended Kwangju High School, one of the more prestigious high schools in South Korea for baseball. There, he primarily played catcher due to his strong throwing arm, but was extremely versatile and played all eight positions and pitched over the course of his high school career. In 2004, his second year of high school, he was selected to South Korea's national team in the 18-U Baseball World Cup. The South Korean team ended the tournament in third place, behind second-place Japan and the winner of the competition, Cuba.

In 2005, Kang helped lead his team to win the Golden Lion Flag Championship, one of the four major high school national competitions held annually (along with the Phoenix Flag Championship, the Blue Dragon Flag Championship, and the President's Cup). The right-hander demonstrated his skills on both sides of the baseball, winning the tournament's Best Pitcher Award as well as the RBI title. Later in the year, he participated in the Asian Junior Baseball Championship, an under-18 tournament similar to the 18-U Baseball World Cup, except that it only features teams from Asia. Kang went 6-for-16 at the plate in the competition, but in the end, his team had to settle for second place behind the Japanese contingent.

As a result of his exposure on a national stage, the youngster became highly thought of. The Hyundai Unicorns drafted Kang in the second round of the 2006 KBO Draft, signing him to a 140 million won signing bonus (roughly $137,000). Though the plan was to give him the keys to shortstop, a position that was up for grabs with the recent departure of organizational cornerstone Jin-Man Park, the Unicorns had to reassess their plans due to Kang's subpar performance in the Korea Baseball Futures League. He eventually debuted at the end of the year at the tender age of 19 and got very little playing time (he appeared in only 10 games, mostly as a defensive substitute). He totaled only 21 plate appearances in his brief cup of coffee with the team, going 3-for-20 with a sacrifice bunt. His 2007 season was very much the same, as Kang did not receive much playing time. Though he appeared in 20 games in his sophomore year, he actually received fewer plate appearances, owing to more defensive substitutions than he had in the previous year. He went 2-for-15 in his second year as a professional ballplayer.

In 2008, the Hyundai Unicorns disbanded, and in its place, the Woori Heroes were born. Issues between Woori Bank, individual team owners (a rarity in Asian sports, in which teams are generally a subsidiary of their corporate sponsors), and the KBO led to Woori breaking the naming deal, leaving the Heroes unable to pay most of their veteran players. The team was forced to trade most of its star players and veterans, paving the way for the 21-year-old Jung-Ho Kang to get regular playing time. The youngster made the most of his opportunity, hitting .271/.334/.392 in 116 games, more than holding his own in his first season of prolonged play. In his second season of full playing time, the youngster really broke out, hitting .286/.349/.508 in 133 games. His 33 doubled led the Heroes (and tied for the league lead), while his 23 home runs were third best, behind former major leaguers Cliff Brumbaugh (27) and Doug Clark (24).

More comfortable as a player, the shortstop's career took off. As a 23-year-old in 2010, Kang hit over .300 for the first time in his career, ending the season with a .301/.391/.457 batting line. He won his first Golden Glove that year, awarded to the best player at each position—an important distinction from MLB Gold Gloves, which are awarded to the best defensive player at each position. In 2011, Kang's numbers took a slight step back. He was placed on the secondary roster midseason, but he recovered in the second half and finished with a solid .282/.353/.401 batting line. Coming off of one of his worst seasons as a starter, the shortstop would rebound and have one of his best seasons yet.

In 2012, Jung-Ho Kang had a season very similar to his breakout year of 2009. In 2009, he hammered 33 doubles and 23 home runs; in 2012, he hit 32 doubles and 25 home runs. The biggest differences were the strides he made in getting on base and what he did on the basepaths. In 2009, he hit a very respectable .286/.349 (BA/OBP) with an 81/45 K/BB ratio. In 2012, as a result of both his developing eye at the plate and pitchers being more careful of his burgeoning power, Kang walked roughly once (71 BB) for every strikeout he recorded (78 K), resulting in a .314/.413 batting average and on-base percentage. Once on the bases, the shortstop demonstrated uncharacteristic friskiness, stealing 21 bases in 26 attempts. His previous high, in both stolen base attempts and successes, came a year earlier, when he stole four bases in 10 attempts. He won his second Gold Glove Award in 2012, but his success was somewhat overshadowed by that of teammate Byung-Ho Park, who won the KBO MVP Award. Kang's 2013 season was very similar to the one he had in 2012. Though his offensive numbers took a step back, he still hit a very respectable .291/.387/.489, reached double-digit totals in home runs and stolen bases, and won the shortstop Gold Glove Award (while again being overshadowed by Park, who won his second consecutive KBO MVP).

In 2014, the 27-year-old had a career year. He put up MVP-type numbers, hitting .360/.465/.756 through September. He set the KBO record for home runs by a shortstop with his 38th shot on August 29 against Hanwha. In addition to the burst of power that saw him surpass his previous home run high about 20, Kang hit almost .60 points higher than his recent career averages. Kang is not alone in having a great season, as teammate Byung-Ho Park is hitting .313/.449/.697 through mid-September with an astounding 48 home runs (still eight round trippers short of Seung-Yeop Lee's KBO record).

In addition to all of his domestic success, Kang is no stranger to international competitions. In 2010, he was a member of the South Korean delegation participating in the Asian Games. He went 8-for-13 in the competition with 3 home runs, and along with Shin-Soo Choo (8-for-14, 3 HR), helped power the South Korean team to a 9-3 victory over Taiwan to win the gold medal in baseball. More important than raising national pride and morale was the exemption from having to serve compulsory military service that members of the baseball delegation received. In 2013, he played for the Korean National Team in the World Baseball Classic. The shortstop played in three games, getting nine at-bats. He only managed two hits before sustaining an injury that kept him sidelined from further in-game action, but one of them was a home run off of former MLB All-Star Hong-Chih Kuo.

Year Age G PA AVG OBP SLG HR BB K SB
2010 23 133 522 .301 .391 .457 12 61 87 2/4
2011 24 123 504 .282 .353 .401 9 43 62 4/10
2012 25 124 519 .314 .413 .560 25 71 78 21/26
2013 26 126 523 .291 .387 .489 22 68 109 15/23
2014* 27 107 381 .360 465 .756 38 62 98 3/6
*Stats current as of September 14, 2014 (2014 Asian Games KBO break)

So, what kind of player is Jung-Ho Kang?

He stands very upright at the plate, and employs a very pronounced leg kick. He's obviously made it work for him thus far in his professional career, but Kang holds the pose, so to speak, longer than most players who use leg kicks, leaving him literally standing on one leg as the pitcher delivers the ball. In the KBO, where fastball velocities are slower and pitchers generally rely more on physical deception and pitch movement, this might help get his body in position to better attack the ball; in MLB, I can't help but think that pitchers would exploit his weird posture by beating him with pitches to which he can't catch up.

Defensively, Kang has quick reactions. His arm is generally decent enough to get the job done, and he makes up for any missing zip on his throws with good range and agility to his left and right. He is able to get to balls to the right (his left) of the second base bag and to the deep shortstop hole with equal ability. He loses some zip on his throw from deep in the hole, but such throws are generally sufficient to get slower baserunners out. If he shows no issues playing shortstop in MLB, he should be at least an average defensive player. At 6 feet and roughly 210 pounds, there should be no concerns about him being "too big" for the position.

According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, the Nexen Heroes will be posting their shortstop. Cafardo names the St. Louis Cardinals, specifically, as being interested Kang, but mentions that other teams are in the mix as well. Dan of MyKBO picked out what seemed to be scouts from the Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, and Washington Nationals at Mokdong Stadium at the Heroes' August 27 game against the Kia Tigers; but whether or not they were scouting Kang and the interest their respective employers have in him is unknown.

According to Cafardo, Kang is due to get "serious money." The question is whether Kang put up "serious numbers." While we obviously won't know until he does play in MLB, my gut tells me no, and that any team that pays "serious money" to the shortstop will not be getting production relative to payment for services rendered. In short, I don't see Kang keeping up the level of production he's reached this year.

While his power numbers are impressive, they need to be looked at in their proper context. The shortstop did not have an MVP-caliber season against the combined pitching staffs of the NL and AL All-Star Teams, or in stadiums near the bottom of the park effect rankings in terms of runs, hits, and home runs allowed. While his batting line is impressive, he compiled it against KBO pitchers, generally regarded as less talented than their Japanese and MLB counterparts. In fact, in 2014, the KBO is experiencing an offensive explosion like never before. The league has experienced a roughly 40% increase in runs scored compared to the 2012 season and a roughly 80% increase in home runs, according to study author and former MLB and KBO pitcher Ryan Sadowski. This seems largely due to a change in the game-official KBO baseball.

This is not to say that Kang's numbers are hollow and have no meaning, but that the increase in his power numbers do not necessarily reflect improvement as a player. In 2012, according to the above-mentioned research, Kang was directly responsible for 21% of the runs scored by Nexen; in 2014, he was directly responsible for only 17%, despite the across-the-board increase in his numbers.

In addition, the Nexen Heroes play their home games at Mokdong Stadium, one of the smaller parks in Korea. Both right and left field are 322 feet from home plate, and the deepest part of the park, dead center, is only 387 feet away. Among the primary parks that KBO teams use, only Masan Baseball Stadium, home of the recently formed NC Dinos, is smaller (318 feet down the lines and 381 feet to dead center). By comparison, Citizens Bank is 330 feet down the lines and 409 feet at its deepest part; Yankee Stadium is 318 feet in left and 408 feet at its deepest part. Many of the home runs that Kang and many other Korean hitters hit in Korea would otherwise be fly balls in most stadiums in the U.S. It is important to note, however, that many of Kang's home runs could be considered "towering," and are still traveling when they pass out of the field of play. I can't say for sure whether or not, on average, these towering shots have enough on them to pass for MLB home runs, but it wouldn't be accurate to call all of Kang's home runs a product of smaller park dimensions.

Defensively, there is reason to be hesitant. Mokdong Stadium converted from natural grass to artificial turf in 2008. The transition from playing on artificial turf to playing primarily on grass is cited as one of the reasons why defensive studs such as Kaz Matsui and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, among others, struggled with their defense in the MLB. While it might stand to reason that playing on grass would be easier—for example, it is easier on the knees and the friction from the grass slows ground balls—it still represents a change to which fielders are not accustomed. Balls take hops they are not used to seeing, and because fielders do not have to stand as far back as they might on turf, balls arrive more quickly and get bobbled more easily as a result. It's not that Kang has no experience playing on grass fields—other KBO teams' stadiums use natural grass—but it is something to be aware and cognizant of, like home/road or night/day splits. According to an MLB scout, "Kang has a functional arm at shortstop, but he may be better suited at third base or right field. He doesn't have enough range to play shortstop and I don't think he has the glove to play third base. He may be able to play right field, but that position will require better offensive production."

Does he make sense for the Mets?

Though he's spent some time at both second and third base, Kang is primarily a shortstop (though he might be better suited as a second baseman in MLB). Incumbent Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada has so underperformed that the Mets have been looking to replace him, auditioning Wilmer Flores for the job. Flores's bat certainly has potential, but has not yet come around, and coupled with his defensive deficiencies, Flores is no lock to start at the position in 2015 or beyond.

If the organization is interested in bringing Jung-Ho Kang on board, it needs to be convinced that he will be an upgrade—offensively, defensively, or both, at either shortstop or second base. While the possibility certainly exists, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. As such, committing limited funds to the Gwangju native would be a risky proposition.

Ultimately, regardless of how you feel about his ability to translate his success to American baseball, the biggest hurdle will likely be the financial aspect of signing Kang. It's hard to gauge how much Kang might be posted for, but it would not be surprising to see him command a fee in the $5 to $15 million range. In addition to paying Nexen that fee, the club would have to negotiate a contract with Kang. Nick Cafardo predicts that Kang would be due some "serious money" this offseason, but does not make clear whether that is his personal opinion or that of scouts who have seen the shortstop. As such, it's hard to gauge how much a team might value the right-hander.

Given his age, Kang will likely command a minimum of two years. The dollar amount would likely depend heavily on how much a team believes his power is transferable to MLB. Regardless, the posting fee and contract combination probably preclude the Mets from competing for the shortstop's talents.