|KBO branding! (Mori Chan, Flickr via Wikimedia Commons)|
Here is what's known about Kang. He has played in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO, South Korea's equivalent of MLB) and walloped pitchers for years. This past season Kang posted an absurd .356/.459/.739 triple slash line with 40 home runs in 117 games. He also posted these monstrous numbers while playing shortstop. Shockingly, Kang was named MVP.
The KBO does not feature the same talent level as Major League Baseball, or Japan's professional leagues for that matter. However, after that, it's hard to find a much better league. Furthermore, South Korea has shown well in the World Baseball Classic, for what that is worth. The real challenge here for statisticians and scouts alike is that nobody has jumped from the KBO to the big leagues like Kang is poised to do. Unsurprisingly, scouting reports on him vary from potential impact bat in the middle of the diamond to mediocre reserve that lacks the tools to play shortstop or second base in the majors.
I am no more qualified than anyone else to pass judgement on Jung-ho Kang. In fact, I have not seen any video on him and I have no way of converting KBO stats into major league equivalencies. Google "Jung-ho Kang" and see if you can find more meaningful analysis of him as a player than I have already provided. Right now, I am more interested in the idea of Jung-ho Kang - and I am surprised the idea of Kang only cost a little more than $5 million to negotiate with. Other players shrouded in mystery - ideas, as I am calling them in this post - have fetched more money.
Let's start with the Mariners. They forked over $13 million in 2000 to talk to Ichiro, which in hindsight seems like a steal. It was. However, at the time, there had not been an impact bat that migrated to MLB from Japan, and Ichiro didn't necessarily have skills that would translate well. He lived off of of singles. He was a glorified slap-hitter. There was uncertainty over whether he could consistently make contact against MLB pitching and especially if he had the bat speed to pull big league fastballs. Still, the Mariners bet on the idea of Ichiro - that arguably the greatest hitter in Japanese history could also hit in the major leagues - and the bet worked out.
Fast forward to Yoenis Cespedes and the Athletics. Cespedes was not the first Cuban to ever play in the Majors, but it was still surprising when he signed a 4 year, $36 million contract, particularly with the thrifty A's. Oakland couldn't have had great data to work with because of the nature of Cuban baseball and Cuban-American relations*. The general consensus is that Cuban baseball is among the best in the world, but measures of their greatness are very hard to discern given how little access they have to Americans and vice-versa. It's simply hard to get enough measuring sticks to known talents. The Athletics had to be sold on the idea of Cespedes - that a freakishly gifted athlete known as one of the best talents in Cuba could also emerge as a great player in MLB without much development. He did, and paved the way for the burgeoning contracts heaped upon Cubans, most recently Yasmany Tomas.
*At least up until this past week!
Kang is the latest unknown. A risk-averse franchise could easily justify passing on him. There is no way to know exactly how his skills will translate, or if they will at all. He could be a product of small ballparks. He could lack bat speed. Perhaps the MLB game will be too fast for him to adequate defend up the middle. These are all reasonable assumptions. They might all be probable outcomes. Baseball is largely a game of failure. A league-average batter makes outs twice as often as they reach base. Well less than half of players drafted, even in the first 10 rounds, ever even make the majors.
The high failure rate is exactly why more teams should have gambled on Kang's potential. The question, in my mind, is not so much how well Kang will do, but how much is worth investing in such an unknown in baseball's current climate. Team's can't spend like they used to in the draft, and the continued cashflow from baseball's obscene new TV contracts is driving free agent contracts up at rapid rates. Moreover, the analytics revolution in baseball have made both the amateur draft and free agency more efficient markets - in other words, marketplaces where teams are more likely to get what they pay for than ever before.
Kang represents the possibility for a market inefficiency - a bargain, in other words. Yes, he comes with risks, but really, how much of a risk did the Pirates take? What else could they have done with $5 million? For perspective, the Mariners will pay Willie Bloomquist $3 million this season. Willie Bloomquist, he of no power at all and mediocre middle infield defense. Kang will cost more, but he comes with much more upside. What if he can hit 15 dingers with middling defense at second base? Even with something like a .260 batting average and .320 OBP? That's an everyday second baseman in today's MLB environment, and everyday players are worth around $10 million on the open market these days.
Pittsburgh has bet on the idea of Kang - that a slugging shortstop from Korea can be an MLB contributor. Recent history has been kind to franchises that took these types of risks. There is a price point where the risk on Kang does not make sense, but it is north of $5 million in my eyes. Perhaps it will take a huge contract to sign him and he won't be a steal, but I doubt that. Pittsburgh just took a risk that many other teams should have taken.