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Nationals' Second Base Search: Kang Jung-Ho

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The Nationals head into the offseason with only one real weakness in their starting lineup. Nats GM Mike Rizzo has several directions he can go as he tries to fill the vacancy at second base. Today, we'll look at international free agent Kang Jung-Ho.

Kang Jung-Ho put up video game numbers in the KBO last season.  Should the Nats pursue Kang when he's posted in November?
Kang Jung-Ho put up video game numbers in the KBO last season. Should the Nats pursue Kang when he's posted in November?
Chung Sung-Jun

With Asdrubal Cabrera headed towards free agency, the Nationals will almost certainly make finding a second baseman for 2015 their top offseason priority.  In the past, GM Mike Rizzo has shown a willingness to use a variety of methods to improve his roster.  He's been quite successful on the trade market, acquiring Gio Gonzalez, Denard Span, Doug Fister, and Jerry Blevins over the past three offseasons.  He's had some success signing domestic free agents such as Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth.  He's taken just one shot at signing a major international free agent.  It didn't work out very well.

Patrick wrote a story the other day in which he highlighted some of the options that the Nats could consider trading for.  I'm going to cover the free agents, but I'm going to handle this in two installments.  Since we know a lot more about the domestic free agents that the Nats may target, let's focus more on the unknown player first.  Kang Jung-Ho is a 27-year-old shortstop who played for the Nexen Heroes in the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization).  He put up video game numbers in 2014, batting .354/.459/.733 with 39 HR in 415 AB.  Should the Nats consider pursuing him?

Before I get into how much we should trust these numbers, let's start with his career statistics....

Year AB AVG OBP SLG R 2B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS
2014 415 .354 .459 .733 102 36 39 115 67 106 3 1.191
2013 450 .291 .391 .489 67 21 22 96 68 109 15 .880
2012 436 .314 .417 .560 77 32 25 82 71 78 21 .977
2011 444 .282 .357 .401 53 22 9 63 43 62 4 .758
2010 449 .301 .393 .457 60 30 12 58 61 87 2 .849
2009 476 .286 .352 .508 73 33 23 81 45 81 3 .861
2008 362 .271 .337 .392 36 18 8 47 31 65 3 .729
2007 15 .133 .133 .133 0 0 0 0 0 5 0 .267
2006 20 .150 .150 .200 1 1 0 1 0 8 0 .350

And a highlight video (the one that seems to be going around the internet doesn't exactly fit our clean language standards at FBB, so if a few curse words by Eminem towards the end of the video bother you, I'll suggest muting)...

Scouting Report/Highlight Video

International scouting reports can be kind of tricky.  There simply aren't as many first-hand scouting reports for international players available as there are for domestic players.  Let's point you towards Global Sporting Integration for a little detail.  I'll gloss over some of the highlights....

One of Kang’s biggest tools is his raw power. Although the shortstop position puts heavy emphasis on defense, Kang has been one of the best sluggers in KBO for years, hitting at least 20 HR in three straight seasons (the only shortstop in the KBO to do so). He also makes good contact and can get on base.

Based on the highlight reel, that raw power is awfully impressive.  There's only one home run in that video that would be classified as "Just Enough."  While the video doesn't show any opposite field homers, he does drill one off the base of the wall in right center field.  It also shows a couple of monster blasts to straightaway center field and one that he crushes to left center.  Most of the home runs are pulled, and a couple of them actually leave the entire park rather than just clearing the fence.

My biggest concern would be the exaggerated leg kick as he loads his swing.  He loads early, as we'll see several times during the video that his front leg is in the air almost immediately as the pitcher begins his windup.  Watch him at 2:05 of the video as he kicks forward (extending his foot almost over home plate) instead of up and then carries his stride back towards his body instead of striding through the ball.  There's a lot of noise in his swing.

Defensively, Kang is known for his strong arm. Although he is not very agile in the field, his strong arm makes up for it in his ability to play the shortstop position. However, he has committed errors in routine plays at times, which has led some experts to doubt whether he can be an everyday shortstop in MLB.

Quoting an MLB scout: "I think Kang has a functional arm at SS, but he may be better suited at 3B or RF. He doesn’t have the range to play SS and I don’t think he has the glove to play 3B. He may be able to play RF but that position will require better offensive production. He certainly has the arm to play RF."

Kang has won three KBO Gold Gloves playing SS, but the prevailing notion is that he doesn't have the range to play SS in North America.  This particular report from an MLB scout suggests that he may end up at 3b or RF.  Other reports indicate he could end up at 2b, which would be where the Nats would be asking him to play in 2015.

How good is the KBO?

Now let's look at a complete list of South Korean position players who have played in KBO and played in the major leagues in North America:

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The only player that has come over to North America via the KBO and had any success is Dodgers starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu.  The pitcher widely thought to be the second best starting pitcher in the KBO while Ryu was still in Korea (Suk-Min Yoon) did sign in North America last season.  He had a 5.74 ERA (4.97 FIP) for the Norfolk Tides in AAA.

There have been some other players from South Korea who have had success.  There are just two position players in this group.

  • You're all familiar with the Rangers' Shin Soo Choo... He signed as an amateur free agent with the Mariners as an 18-year-old.
  • Some of you probably remember Hee-Seop Choi, who was once a top power prospect for the Cubs.... He signed as a 20-year-old amateur free agent.
  • Chan Ho Park signed as an amateur free agent with the Dodgers when he was 20.
  • Byung-Hyun Kim signed as an amateur free agent with the Diamondbacks when he was 20.
  • The players with the next longest MLB tenures (Jae Weong Seo and former Expo Sun-Woo Kim) were also amateur free agents.

The problem here is that we have almost no context regarding Kang's numbers.  We haven't seen any position players successfully transition from Korea to North America who didn't develop in the minor leagues with a North American organization.  We've only seen one pitcher from KBO successfully translate their game to North America, as opposed to the 28 Japanese pitchers who have reached the majors since 2000.  There's no real track record to work with.

Researching around the net to try and find how the KBO compares to NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball), I couldn't find anything that put KBO at or above the level of NPB.  In fact, while I don't want to call KBO a feeder league, many of the better players from the KBO end up signing with Japanese teams.  I hear all the time that the level of play in NPB  is somewhere between AAA and MLB.  The prevailing notion that I could find on the net regarding KBO is that it translates somewhere between High A and AA ball in North America.  This makes Kang's numbers feel a bit less impressive.

But wait... There's more.....

Forget questioning KBO overall... How about the 2014 spike?

The massive jump in Kang's offensive numbers in 2014 also comes with a caveat.  KBO started using new baseballs in 2014, which appeared to do some crazy things with the run environment.  The article that I linked to above with Kang's scouting report points you to another article (it's actually a word document) written by former San Francisco Giants' pitcher Ryan Sadowski, who pitched his final three seasons in the KBO.  Here's a quick passage from that article....

The 2014 season has been nothing short of spectacular offensively.  As of September 10th, we have seen 5762 runs scored over the course of 505 games.  There have been about 11.4 runs scored per game or 5.7 runs scored per team.  We have witnessed about a 40% increase in runs scored from the 2012 season.  We have also seen 1047 homeruns during the 505 games that have been played.  In 2014, we have seen an 80% increase in homeruns produced in comparison to the 2012 season.

Just two years earlier, KBO teams averaged 4.1 runs per game.  They hit a total of 615 home runs in 532 games.  Those figures jumped to 5.7 runs per game and 1,047 home runs in 505 games this past season.  That's insane!

For reference, there were 19,761 runs scored in MLB this past season.  There were 2,430 games with two teams each (4,860).  That leaves us with 4.06 runs per game per team across all of MLB.  In the 81 games at Coors Field, the Rockies and their opponents combined to score 944 runs.  That's 5.82 runs per game for each team in Coors Field.  From 2012 to 2014, the runs scored per game in the KBO inflated from the 2014 MLB average to just under the 2014 Coors Field average. Of course players like Kang (and everyone else) saw a spike in their production.

Sadowski also opines that MLB teams looking to sign Kang should be cautious with his 2014 numbers...

Kang Jung-Ho has been the talk of Korea recently.  His monster numbers look like something that would be found in a game of Magu-Magu.  With talks of seeking a major league contract, it is important that major league teams take a closer look at Kang before investing in him long term.  During the 2012 season, Kang smacked 25 homers, 32 doubles and ripped off 21 bags in a season that required MVP consideration.  With an OPS of .973, Kang’s performance equated to 20% of the average offensive output for an entire team during the 2012 season.  In 2014, Kang already has 38 homers and 33 doubles and an OPS of a remarkable 1.219!  If Kang would have put up these numbers in 2012, his offensive impact would have been 31% of a team’s entire offense, but in 2014 that number is 22%. While these numbers are spectacular, Kang’s offensive impact in the 2012 season to the 2014 season has increased 2% not the 11% that is the common perception.

Sadowski sure makes it sounds like this offensive spike didn't happen because a light suddenly clicked on.  It sounds more like Kang saw a typical minor spike (2%) as he reached what was probably his offensive peak (age 27 season) as the run environment increased dramatically.  His numbers were ridiculous, but the run environment in KBO was 40% higher than it was just two years ago and home runs were up 80%.

Take the success of international free agents with a grain of salt

We've seen some of the best players from Japan and Cuba come to North America and succeed without spending much (in some cases, any) time in the minor leagues.  Here's a refresher of some of the top international free agent signings of the past couple of decades...

  • Ichiro Suzuki
  • Hideki Matsui
  • Jose Abreu
  • Yoenis Cespedes
  • Yasiel Puig
  • Yu Darvish
  • Hisashi Iwakuma
  • Hiroki Kuroda
  • Norichika Aoki
  • Aroldis Chapman

We've seen some other players either meet with moderate success or have some immediate success and flame out quickly....

  • Daisuke Matsuzaka
  • Kosuke Fukudome
  • Kazuo Matsui
  • Tsuyoshi Shinjo
  • So Taguchi

And then, we have quite a few guys who were busts.......

  • Tsuyoshi Nishioka
  • Hiroyuki Nakajima
  • Hideki Irabu
  • Kenshin Kawakami
  • Yunesky Maya
  • Kei Igawa

The domestic free agent class for middle infielders isn't particularly strong.  It seems like Kang would offer more upside than players like Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew, or Jed Lowrie.  He also offers far less stability.  We've seen that Cabrera, Drew, and Lowrie can hit at the big league level.  We haven't seen if Kang can.

I understand the reasoning behind getting hyped up about signing an international free agent who could step in and produce right away.  We've seen a success stories the past few years with players like Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes.  The problem is that for every Jose Abreu, there's an Alex Guerrero*.  For every Hideki Matsui, there's a Tsuyoshi Nishioka.  For every Yu Darvish, there's a Kei Igawa.  For every Aroldis Chapman, there's a Yunesky Maya.  The list goes on......

*It's probably a bit unfair to label Guerrero a bust, but the Dodgers signed the 27-year-old to a 4 year, $28 million deal last winter to become their shortstop and move Hanley Ramirez to third base.  They moved him to second base in AAA, but still don't seem to trust his defense there, much less at SS.  Either way, they paid a guy in the prime of his career $7 million in 2014 to give them 13 big league plate appearances and play three games in left field.

Over the years, Rizzo's scouting background has proven to be useful in finding value out of players that other organizations have given up on.  Tanner Roark was the secondary piece in the Cristian Guzman deal.  He acquired a 27-year-old minor league SS/3b who had fallen out of favor with the Mariners for Ryan Langerhans in 2009.  Mike Morse ended up giving the Nats three good seasons before Rizzo traded him back to Seattle to reacquire a top prospect in A.J. Cole and add Blake Treinen in a three team trade.

Rizzo is an awfully good talent evaluator who has shown in the past that he trusts his ability to evaluate a player's skill instead of focusing solely on past production.  Kang certainly isn't a player like those listed above that an organization is giving up on, but I trust that Rizzo is going to fall back on that scouting background to make a decision on whether or not to pursue him.  While extremely impressive, the 2014 numbers just don't add up.  He was a 27-year-old playing in an inflated run environment at a league that's the equivalent of A+/AA ball in North America.

Several teams with deep pockets (most notably the Yankees, Phillies, and Mets) figure to be heavily involved when Kang is posted.  He'll be posted under the old bidding rules (blind bidding, winner gets exclusive negotiating rights).  The new NPB posting system of a $20 million maximum posting fee in which all teams that are willing to pay the posting fee can negotiate with the player doesn't apply to the KBO.

There's risk in signing any player to a free agent deal, but with the high potential pricetag, the lack of a track record for KBO players in North America, and the probability that his numbers were inflated this past season due to the run environment going crazy in Korea, there's just too much risk here.  There will come a time when I think that the Nats will be willing to spend big on an international free agent.  I don't think it's going to be Kang Jung-Ho that they'll spend big on.