By Jason Shetler
In December of 2014, the Pirates made perhaps the most unexpected move of any team that offseason when they won the bidding for Jung-Ho Kang. Even if the Pirates weren’t going to sign him, at least there was an effort in trying to pursue a legitimate International player. A month later, Kang and the Pirates agreed to terms on a four-year deal, which included a fifth year club option.
Despite a poor Spring Training performance, Kang made the Opening Day roster as a reserve. With injuries to both Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, he began to receive more playing time and really capitalized. Kang’s fantastic rookie campaign came to a very unfortunate end in September when he sustained a torn lateral meniscus and fractured tibia on a slide at second base from outfielder Chris Coghlan.
Kang’s 2015 season was one of the best by a rookie in franchise history, posting an .816 OPS along with an OPS+ of 123 in 126 games played. His overall game was certainly valuable with a 4.0 WAR, the best mark by a Pirates rookie in the Expansion Era, which began in 1961. Kang finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting behind Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs and Matt Duffy, formerly of the San Francisco Giants who now plays for the Tampa Bay Rays.
After months of rehabilitation, Kang made his 2016 season debut on May 6th in St. Louis and promptly hit two home runs that night. In his first ten games, he homered five times and finished out May with a .915 OPS.
In early July, a shocking development came out with Kang being investigated by Chicago police for a sexual assault claim that was made against him. Since then, police have been unable to contact the woman who made the claim, so it appears there was nothing that actually happened.
Kang finished out the season strong, as he put up an OPS of .899 post All-Star break and was given NL Rookie of the Week honors in September. Despite playing just 103 games in 2016, he managed to hit 21 homers, which ended up being third on the team behind Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco.
Heading into 2017, Kang will be entering his age 30 season, which is still his prime. Going by FanGraphs’ Pitch Values, he’s handled the fastball extremely well in his first two big league seasons. According to Statcast, Kang’s average exit velocity of 91.1 mph this year was above the MLB average at 89.6 mph, so his bat speed remains solid. With his offensive approach, combined with now getting use to faster velocity from big league pitching that he wasn’t seeing in the KBO, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Kang could have himself a 30-35 home run season next year, assuming he that he stays clear of injury.