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Kang Jung-ho's MLB career hangs in balance after release

All Headlines 15:04 August 09, 2019

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Aug. 9 (Yonhap) -- Two South Korean players were released by their Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs in recent weeks. One has come home, while the other is biding his time for a fresh opportunity in the bigs.

Right-hander Oh Seung-hwan rejoined the Samsung Lions in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) on Tuesday, less than two weeks after the Colorado Rockies released him. Oh made his professional debut with the Lions in 2005 and pitched nine seasons with them, before embarking on a six-year odyssey that saw him pitch in Japan, Canada and the United States.

Last Sunday, the Pittsburgh Pirates released infielder Kang Jung-ho, who struggled to a .169/.222./.395 line in 65 games this year with 10 home runs and 24 RBIs. He struck out 60 times in 172 at-bats.

In this Getty Images file photo from May 11, 2019, Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates (L) reacts after striking out against the St. Louis Cardinals in the top of the eighth inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (Yonhap)

The Pirates gave Kang a second chance, following legal trouble stemming from an accident in Seoul three years ago that put his once-promising big league career in limbo.

Kang was arrested and convicted for fleeing the scene of a drunk driving accident in Seoul in December 2016. Unable to obtain his U.S. work visa, Kang missed the entire 2017 season and only played in the final three regular season games in 2018.

His four-year deal with the Pirates expired at the end of 2018, but the club signed him as a free agent on a one-year deal worth US$3 million, plus up to $2.5 million in performance bonuses.

After Kang led the majors with seven home runs in spring training, that one-year deal didn't just look like a gamble worth taking; the price tag seemed like a downright steal on an infielder who could play two positions, third base and shortstop, reasonably well while flashing decent power at the plate.

When Kang left the Pirates' spring training site in Bradenton, Florida, his power stroke stayed behind.

He batted .160 in his first 24 games, though he did have four home runs. But left side strain kept him out of action for almost all of May, a month during which he went 0-for-15.

He was activated from the injured list on June 8. In his next 34 games, Kang had six homers but also struck out 29 times while batting .207 (17-for-82). The Pirates designated him for assignment last Friday and cut him loose two days later.

Kang is a free agent now, able to sign with any club. And the way he hit the open market -- getting released in August rather than entering free agency after a strong season -- is an unexpected fall from grace for the first position player to jump from the KBO to MLB.

In this UPI file photo from July 15, 2019, Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Kang Jung-ho makes a play against the St. Louis Cardinals in the top of the eighth inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. (Yonhap)

Kang made that leap in 2015, when he finished third in the National League (NL) Rookie of the Year voting with a .287/.355/.461 line, 15 home runs and 58 RBIs in 126 games.

In 2016, Kang slugged at a .513 clip while setting career highs with 21 dingers and 62 RBIs in 103 games. He was about to enter his age-30 season with the promise of a 30-homer season.

But then Kang had that accident in late 2016, and he frittered away two seasons in what should have been his prime years.

The power Kang flashed in spring training this year went missing in the regular season because, simply put, he was fanning on more pitches than he ever had in his major league career.

According to the statistics website FanGraphs, Kang swung and missed on 16 percent of pitches he saw this season. The MLB average for the swinging strike rate is 11.1 percent, and in his previous full season in 2016, Kang swung and missed 9.1 percent of the time.

Also, Kang swung on 34.8 percent of the pitches outside the strike zone this season, compared with the MLB average of 31.4 percent. He chased 25 percent of the pitches outside the zone in 2016.

In this Associated Press file photo from June 26, 2019, Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a two-run home run against the Houston Astros in the top of the sixth inning of a Major League Baseball regular season game at Minute Maid Park in Houston. (Yonhap)

Naturally, Kang's strikeout rate -- the total strikeouts divided by plate appearances -- shot up from 21.4 percent in 2016 to 32.4 percent this year, nearly 10 percentage points higher than the MLB average. Conversely, his walk rate -- the total walks divided by plate appearances -- went down from 9.7 percent in 2016 to 5.9 percent in 2019.

But other numbers indicate Kang may also have been unlucky.

Kang hit line drives and flyballs at virtually the same rates as he did in 2016, and his career-best hard hit rate of 40.7 percent this year falls in FanGraphs' "excellent" range.

In exit velocity, Kang ranks 15th in all of baseball with an average of 92.2 mph. He's ahead of more accomplished hitters like J.D. Martinez of the Boston Red Sox and Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In average exit velocity in line drives and fly balls, Kang is also 15th in MLB with 97.1 mph. But among the top 15 players overall, no one has hit fewer homers than Kang's 10.

And Kang has a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of only .184, an atypically low number that likely means even when Kang made good contact, those balls went right at fielders for hard groundouts, lineouts or flyouts. The MLB average on BABIP is .299, and Kang had a .273 BABIP in 2016.

He just hasn't been hitting 'em where they ain't.

In this Associated Press file photo from May 22, 2019, Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates (L) playfully grabs the nose of his manager Clint Hurdle during a Major League Baseball regular season game against the Colorado Rockies at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. (Yonhap)

With more opportunities at the plate, Kang's hard-luck numbers may move closer to the league average. And teams could do worse than taking a flyer on Kang, who can be a useful power bat off the bench and can handle two positions on the left side of the infield.

Among potential postseason clubs, the Milwaukee Brewers, which are holding on to the second wild-card spot in the NL at 60-56, could use some extra offense from their shortstop position.

Out of 30 MLB clubs, the Brewers have the worst on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) from their shortstops. Their everyday shortstop, Orlando Arcia, is batting .230/.293/.363 with 12 home runs and 41 RBIs in 112 games.

The Texas Rangers, seven games out of the second wild-card spot in the American League at 58-56, are thin at the hot corner. Isiah Kiner-Falefa, catcher who was called up from the minors earlier this month to take over at third base, has homered just once in 42 games. The Rangers' website lists Logan Forsythe as Kiner-Falefa's backup at third base, and Forsythe has six homers and a .252 batting average in 78 games.

The Rangers have a South Korean veteran in outfielder/designated hitter Choo Shin-soo.

If Kang lands with another big league team, the Pirates will still owe him the remainder of his salary for this season. The new club will only have to pay Kang a pro-rated portion of the MLB minimum, which is $550,000 this year.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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