Jung-Ho Kang is coming to a Pirates game near you, and he better be on your radar as a baseball fan or fantasy manager. As with every foreign import, you have heard scouts and analysts weigh in on Kang, and you will continue to hear more reports as the season approaches. You may have heard his power will not translate to our game, that he may not even be a starter at the highest level of American baseball. I’m here to tell you that these reports starkly underrate Kang’s potential, and now you can cash in as a fantasy owner while everyone else follows the status quo. Kang has an elite swing that will allow his numbers to translate very quickly into Major League success.
Let’s jump right into some images. Here Kang is hitting a fastball out to just right of dead center field for a long home run:
There are a few key things to notice in this shot. Firstliest, like many Asian hitters, Kang employs a big early leg kick. Where many athletes would falter with a move like this, Kang demonstrates impeccable balance throughout the step. See how his hip line stays almost perfectly parallel to the ground, instead of favoring one side or the other. It’s a big move, for sure, but it’s also completely under control.
Secondlily, look at the movement of his barrel and arms as he steps down to the ground and begins to launch his hands. His barrel starts tilted toward the first base side of his body. Then, as his right shoulder rotates back (much in the same way a pitcher’s arm does), the barrel tips toward the third base dugout before coming down to the plane of the pitch. All this happens while the front elbow stays pointed more down toward the ground. This sequence of moves allows him to start loading up his right shoulder to deliver force through the bat without flattening out his path so much that he comes out and around the ball. Here’s an up and coming hitter showing us how that’s done:
Thirdish, look at how Kang’s right hip thrusts into view as he goes through contact, driving his whole pelvis in an explosive motion toward the middle of the field. If you wanted to nitpick, you could say he over-rotates a bit compared to Cabrera, manifesting in a very slight roll to the outside of his front heel instead of it staying completely flush with the ground. But, then again…
As an interesting aside, this is the most notable improvement in Kang’s swing in his 2014 highlights compared to 2013, where he was a bit more violent and over-rotational with his hip drive. The corresponding increase in homer totals is not a coincidence. Check him out that year:
Now a side view of the swing from above:
Here you can really see how Kang commands his big leg kick, keeping his back leg in strong connection with the ground. His back knee stays uncommitted until the moment he starts to rotate his hips, allowing his biggest muscles to drive the turn.
Moving up the body, the aforementioned back shoulder roll allows his elbow to drop in underneath his hands, which creates a slingshot effect with the hands being thrown through contact instead of pushed. The hands come down behind his body to bring the barrel into the path of the ball deep in the zone, start to propel past his elbow by his back hip, and travel on a slight upward arc into picture perfect extension after contact. There is no wasted movement with the bat as a result, as it stays close to his body as it descends and goes out as far as his arms can take it as it hits the ball. This is a model of the popular adage “short to the ball, long through it.”
All of these qualities together allow him to make adjustments mid-pitch when the ball decides to dodge, duck, dip, dive and… dodge. This time, look at this ability with Miguel Cabrera juxtaposed:
From the pitcher’s view, you can see how his hands drop in under the breaking pitch and scoop it up into the air for another easy homer, much like Miggy. The only noticeable differences come from Kang’s spine tilt as he finds the plane of the pitch, where Cabrera starts already a bit hunched over the plate. Not a problem, just a divergence of style. Kang also foregoes the leg kick here, though his lower half mechanics look identical to the first swing in this article.
From the side, see again how both hitters’ hands come down to the line of the pitch first before going forward to contact, allowing them extra time to be off with their timing and still drive it in the air. The front elbow staying pointed down gives them the ability to elevate the ball, especially on a low pitch.
Kang keeps his tremendous balance even on a difficult location, and his hips still have that explosive pop rather than being an all-upper-body swing like most guys take on well-placed breaking balls. Kang’s swing is the tiniest bit flatter than Miggy’s, but not to enough of a degree to negatively affect him. For example, here’s a shot from Josh Donaldson’s stellar 2013 season, who has a flatter swing path than both with proven results. See how his barrel comes around his hands a bit more, rather than directly under like Cabrera (and a big, yet athletic leg kick like Kang):
So he can hit low pitches, but so can a lot of hitters. That doesn’t mean they can hit big league pitching. Mike Trout can attest to the relentlessness of Major League pitchers’ attacking a hitter’s weak zones. This is the highest pitch I could find a side shot for, again with Cabrera for comparison:
Where some hitters cannot adjust a low-ball swing for high pitches, Kang looks like he is fully capable of doing just that. His hands still start moving down first, but come forward on a higher plane to get to this just above belt-high pitch. Cabrera shows a similar adjustment on an even higher pitch.
And finally, just to hammer home more evidence of his ability to cover the whole zone and then some, here’s a fastball in off the plate that Kang handily keeps in fair territory, and deposits into the seats in straightaway left field:
How about a chase-me breaking ball well off the outside corner?
While Kang did play in a league where video game scores are the norm, you can only discount a player’s production so much because of competition level. With an upper echelon swing and league-leading production in his home country, I will gladly bet on Kang having a spectacular start to his big league career. Throw in the evidence that he has made some recent improvements to his swing that led to a career year, and he may only be getting better as he transitions to Major League Baseball.
The only missing piece here is his plate discipline and contact rates, but we have limited data on which to draw reasonable conclusions. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out, Kang did strike out at a slightly higher than league average rate in a very offense-friendly league. That should give some pause to any optimism, for sure. However, with the amount of athleticism in his swing and the ability to adjust, it is impossible for me to believe he won’t make at least average contact. Taking the detestable jump into the predictive, with how hard he hits the ball and assuming only average contact and strikeout rates, I could easily see him hitting .280 with 25 homers, and that might be conservative.
Playing time will not be an issue once he outplays the rest of the Pirates infield — they’ll find room for his bat. For logistical reasons, give him a break at the start for the culture change and settling into the grind of big league baseball, but he has all the makings of being an absolute monster. He’ll easily be worth the contract the Pirates sign him to, and he’ll be worth any price you pay on draft day.