Jung Ho Kang put up solid power numbers for the Pirates in 2016. Now that it seems that his offseason issues are behind him, what is his fantasy value this season?
There is always a sense of mystery when it comes to foreign players that come over to MLB from their respective league. Whether it be Cuba, Japan or Korea, it is always fun to figure out how the talent will transition. Jung Ho Kang could not have come stateside at any better time in his career after hitting 40 HR in Korea before being signed by the Pirates in 2015.
Jung Ho Kang debuted in that year and did not disappoint, finishing that season with a .287/15 HR/58 RBI/.816 OPS over 126 games. Entering 2016, Kang looked to nail down consistent time at third base, but also had to rehab a broken leg that ended his rookie year. He would miss all of April last season, but ended the year with a .255/21 HR/62 RBI/.867 OPS.
The first thing that fantasy owners will see is the power uptick in 23 fewer games than 2015. Kang did this by lifting the ball more and squaring it up more frequently. His batted ball data from 2016 read as, 20% LD, 42% GB, 37% FB, 43% Med and 39% Hard contact rates. His LD dropped by 2% from his rookie year, but he was able to cut his GB rate by 7%, increase his FB rate by nearly 10% and upped his Hard contact by 5%.
Kang simply hit the ball harder and more in the air last season. Based on the ESPN Home Run Tracker, Kang averaged 403.3 ft. per homer last season. That is a great clip over 20+ HR, so the power is legit. Fantasy owners will see that his AVG did take a 32 point tumble. But, with his batted ball improvement and below league average .273 BABIP, his AVG will surely climb back into the .270 range.
In terms of his counting stats, Kang will see at-bats near the middle of the Pirates’ lineup. With the likes of Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Andrew McCutchen in front of him, the numbers will be there. If he can play 130 games this season and maintain his batted ball upticks, he should knock in 80 RBI.
Keep in mind as well, if not for a shoulder injury in August, Kang would have more than likely eclipsed the 25 HR/70 RBI mark last season. He was a solid contributor for nearly the entire time he was on the field in 2016.
It would be remiss to not mention the elephant in the room. Kang has quite the extensive list of offseason incidents. After months of speculation of if he would have to serve time for a DUI in Korea, Kang was able to avoid jail time after all. MLB nor the Pirates have announced any punitive measures either, so Kang looks to be able to enter the season without a looming suspicion hanging over him and his value.
Morality aside, fantasy owners must now reexamine Kang under the assumption he will be available from the get-go. That would catapult him up the third base rankings, making him a top-15 pick even at a loaded fantasy position. The batted profile was good in 2015 and got even better last season. He will have a solid spot in the lineup, with plenty of guys that can get on base in front of him.
Jung Ho Kang may not be a role model off the field, but fantasy owners will take what he can do on it for the Pirates. He has the upside to flirt with 30 HR, but owners should feel comfortable projecting a .270/25 HR/70 RBI line from him in 2017.