Kang's late power surge bodes well for 2017

Kang's late power surge bodes well for 2017

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates weren't expecting Jung Ho Kang to be himself this season. Coming back from a serious injury to his left knee and major surgery to repair it, the thinking went that Kang would have to wait until 2017 to regain his full strength.

The way Kang has hit this season, that may not be the case. Or perhaps his performance in 2016 indicates that he's due for an even bigger season next year.

A little more than a year removed from surgery, Kang is batting .267 with a .898 OPS, 20 home runs and 59 RBIs in 98 games. On Sunday, Kang became the first Asian-born infielder to hit 20 home runs in a Major League season; outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has done so four times, and Hideki Matsui had five 20-homer years.

Put simply: Kang may be nearing the end of a sophomore season that's surpassed the lofty expectations set by his debut. And with a full winter to rest, not complete a grueling rehabilitation process in Pittsburgh and Bradenton, Fla., he could be even better next year.

"It was a very different offseason for him last year. He believes there's more opportunity for him," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He believes there are things he can still improve upon."

For one, Kang's numbers may have been even better without a midseason lull. He hit .286 with a .931 OPS in his first 39 games off the disabled list, then he fell into a two-month slump in which he batted .198 with a .680 OPS in 41 games.

Refreshed after his second stint on the DL, Kang has hit .354 with a 1.208 OPS through 21 games in September.

"There was a big vacuum this year at one point," Hurdle said. "It depends on what you're looking for. If you're looking at just numbers at the end, there's an argument there. If you look at consistency over the season, there's another argument there. I think he's growing. I think he's learning more."

Kang will also look to improve defensively over the winter. Some of that will come naturally, as his surgically repaired left knee becomes less of an issue. Last season, he was an above-average third baseman and an average shortstop. This year, Kang's defensive performance has slipped at third, and he hasn't played an inning at shortstop.

That, too, could change next year.

"Will there be an opportunity for him to move back at short any time next year based on the rehab and the strength and what he's able to show?" Hurdle said. "That's going to be an interesting development."

And if all goes well the final week of the season, he'll finally get to go home to South Korea for the offseason.

"He's really excited about going home," Hurdle said. "Everybody likes going home, don't they?"

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.