Spring Training is less than a month away! Let us keep you company until the first pitcher-and-catcher workouts on Feb. 18 with a team-by-team countdown of reasons to get excited for the 2016 MLB season. Today: The Pittsburgh Pirates.
Last year, the Pirates surprised many when they signed Korean infielder Jung Ho Kang. After all, while a number of pitchers like Hyun-Jin Ryu and Byung-Hyun Kim had come over from the KBO and found Major League success, most batters had struggled. The conventional wisdom said that the overall pitching in the KBO was weaker than in other overseas leagues, so you couldn't trust a batter's performance. Add in the $5 million that the Pirates had to bid for the rights to negotiate with the Nexen Heroes slugger, and it wasn't the kind of move Pittsburgh tended to make.
Heading into camp, the shortstop was expected to be a utility infielder for the team, helping fill in when needed around the infield. This despite hitting .356 with 40 home runs the year before.
Through most of April, it looked like the pessimists were right. Kang had started just five games and was 4-for-22 at the plate heading into April 29.
But then, a funny thing happened: Kang started hitting. He closed out the season's first month going 3-for-4 with two RBIs and then went on to hit .298/.379/.464 in May, flipping almost daily between third base and shortstop. He also hit his first Major League home run, which, naturally, came in the top of the ninth inning on May 3, with the Pirates trailing the Cardinals, 1-0.
Rarely playing the same position two days in a row, Kang flipped between short and third, hitting .298/.379/.464 in the month of May. He also hit his first Major League home run, which, naturally, came in the top of the ninth inning on May 3, with the Pirates trailing the Cardinals, 1-0.
Even if the team would go on to lose that day in extra innings, that's a good way to endear yourself to the Pirates faithful. But Kang pretty much did it all year. He'd hit and hit and hit, seemingly powering comebacks all on his lonesome.
On July 11, Kang's single and run scored tied the game and pushed it to extra innings in the Pirates' 14-inning wild victory against (who else?) the Cardinals.
His ninth-inning shot against the Twins on July 28 gave the Pirates the victory (and made Glen Perkins a very unhappy man. Either that or he was sneezing.)
Of his 15 home runs, three tied the game and six put the Pirates ahead. Eight of his homers came in the seventh inning or later. In 32 ninth-inning at-bats, Kang hit .344/.417/.750. And while that sample isn't predictive, it does go a fair distance to explaining how he became such a cult hero in Pittsburgh.
Even the mayor got in on the lovefest.
Kang blasted fastballs, hitting them to the tune of .389 with a .646 slugging percentage. When pitches of any kind were in the upper third of the zone, that number climbed to .900.
His average launch speed as measured by Statcast™ was 91.50 mph, good for second on the Pirates, just ahead of Andrew McCutchen.
Sure, his offense is fun, but don't overlook his defense. While Kang is slightly below average at short, his actions and glove work are plenty smooth. Plus, he's got hops for days.
But his greatest asset in the field is his well above-average arm, which not only helps cover for any deficiencies at short, but is also quite useful over at third:
Unfortunately for the Pirates, Kang didn't get to finish out his rookie season or help the team in their one-game playoff against the Cubs.
Kang tore his lateral meniscus and fractured his tibia on a hard slide while trying to turn two on Sept. 21. Currently on the mend, Kang is unlikely to make it back for Opening Day, but there's hope that he'll be ready by Mid-April.
When he's back, though, the Pirates will be glad to have their one-man rally machine and infielder extraordinaire. Expect plenty more of these in 2016: