Prior to Masahiro Tanaka being posted during the 2013-14 MLB offseason, MLB and NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) reached a new agreement to override the old posting system.1 However, only players coming from NPB are part of this new system. Players from other leagues all around the world, though effectively just South Korea currently, are subject to the old blind bidding system to get the right to negotiate a contract with the player.
Pitchers are the popular type of player to come over from international leagues outside of Cuba. Pitching can be scouted with or without competitive hitting, though it is obviously much more useful to see a pitcher face quality hitters. Hitting is much harder to judge unless they are facing quality pitching. Therein lies the problem for bidding on Jung-Ho Kang.2
Among his KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) compatriots that will be posted this offseason, Kang is one of the few hitters, and likely the only one that will get any serious money. What, then, does he bring to the table?
What would an MLB team pay for a major league shortstop that hits .354/.457/.733 with 39 HRs and 36 doubles? They would pay whatever Mike Trout would get on the open market plus some more depending on just how good of a defensive shortstop he is. If the stats were unquestioned, Kang’s posting would crush Yu Darvish’s fee and contract of $51.7 million and $60 million (6 years) respectively.
You may be noticing that these stats must be flawed, and they are. As noted by BleacherNation’s Brett Taylor, KBO switched to a new baseball for the 2014 season and offensive statistics have skyrocketed, likely just what KBO wanted.3 There are two ways we can put Kang’s performance into context; looking at his past stats with a more analogous run environment or looking at the stats of players around him in the new run environment.
Let’s start with the first tactic. According to Kang’s Baseball-Reference page, he has been posting batting averages between .280-.300, on-base percentages between .350-.420, and slugging percentages between .450-.550. All of this before the age of 27. Kang is on the good side of the aging curve still (though it is not a uniform curve for all players) and his abilities should still be either steady or getting better.
KBO can be compared to an American minor league, though I’m not sure which level is the best comparison. The determination of which league is comparable will change just how much the hitting stats can be compared to what we should expect of Kang against major league pitching. But, by all accounts, he should have nice raw power for a middle infielder4 – I’ll discuss if he can stay in the middle infield later.
Also in Kang’s favor, is that despite his astronomical and questionable numbers, he was still in the top-10 or top-5 in most offensive statistics, including being the top in slugging and behind only Byung-Ho Park in home runs (52 to 39). While the stats are certainly inflated, Kang is still near the top of his league offensively at a premium defensive position.
One last little thing, you can view for yourself, but I see with my amateur eye what looks like dropping his back shoulder for power. I might (probably) be wrong but it should be noted that he likely wouldn’t get away with that in MLB.
What will truly determine Kang’s value is whether at least one team believes he can stick in the infield somewhere, making an expected slip in his offensive numbers less of an issue, especially if he can stick in the middle infield.
At first glance, he seems to have some slick moves and is getting to balls to his right and across second base. Good range, right? Not exactly. Notice that most of the hits in this highlight reel, so only the best plays, are balls that are hitting the dirt in front of the plate. These aren’t screamers that Kang is ranging for.
Second, Kang looks to have the patented Jeter Jump Throw down pat. Including when he’s still on dirt. You generally want to see the jump throw in the grass when a shortstop is truly ranging for a ball. Seeing it in the dirt on a ball that was topped is…disconcerting. If a team thinks Kang can stick at short, my guess is that they want the bat to stay there and aren’t too worried about the lack of range.
The arm looks to be legitimate and above average for the position. It probably isn’t elite, by definition, few are. But, he has enough arm to play any position in the infield. The issue is the range and skills necessary to stick there as Kang enters the late prime of his career.
The report from GSI seems to back this up.
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.’
It’s notable that the scout didn’t even broach the subject of second base, where I’m assuming many teams are hoping they can move Kang to, but there are countless reasons the scout wouldn’t bring it up. He may work for a team that doesn’t need a second baseman, or maybe wants Kang as a second baseman badly and doesn’t want to spread that type of info.
If the scout is right and Kang has the ability to play passably from SS to RF, then he could be very valuable in a super-utility role. The bat will have to get better the further down the spectrum Kang goes, creating higher and higher risk the further you think he falls defensively.
In the end, it only takes one team to be a believer. Does a team want to risk the defensive miscues for the chance at a 20+ home run shortstop? Is this Derek Jeter’s figurative successor to the unnecessary jump throw? Several teams are reportedly interested and scouting Kang; including the Nationals, Rangers, Padres, Tigers, Cubs, Royals, Red Sox, and Diamonbacks.
Scouting a player doesn’t mean direct interest in the age of due diligence, but it is still worth noting. According to Ken Rosenthal, we won’t be seeing the end of this saga until after the winter meetings. Buckle in and get comfortable while we wait for Kang to be officially posted.
Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang not expected to be posted until after winter meetings.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 10, 2014
My ridiculous, wrong, and unnecessary prediction for posting fee and contract? The uncertainty of hitters translating will likely drive down the price, so I see something along the lines of less than $10 million posting fee and a 3-year, $15 million contract. Full risk of $30 million seems plausible and some team may look at that risk and do backflips at the chance at that price. (Korean LHH pitcher Kwang-Hyun Kim only got a $2 million posting fee from the Padres. I may very well be very high on the posting fee.)
Jeong-ho Kang depending on how you choose or how to properly translate Korean names to English, I’m no expert, but I’ve see Jung-Ho Kang used more often here. Baseball-Reference does use Jeong-ho Kang though. Be warned ↩
It must be noted however that Kang played in Mokdong Baseball Stadium which is a bit small compared to MLB fields. Few home runs are generally considered to get out of one park but not another, so even with a dip, Kang will still likely have the power element to succeed ↩