Kang’s Ups and Downs in 2016

It might be hard to imagine now after his 36 big league homers, but just two short years ago everyone questioned how well Jung Ho Kang’s power would translate from the Korean Baseball Organization to Major League Baseball.  Many assumed the power would be substantially reduced, and Kang’s leg kick, and his timing mechanisms along with it, would suffer at the hands of superior pitching.  Well, his rookie campaign last season put those fears to rest pretty quickly, when he hit .287/.355/.461, including 15 HR, over 467 plate appearances. Unfortunately, the season ended prematurely when he suffered a terrible knee injury while attempting to turn a double play.

Kang returned to play on May 6th and immediately returned to the same standards of production for Pirates. He lost a few miles per hour off his average exit velocity, but his average launch angle increased, netting lower BABIP, lower batting average, more fly balls and more home runs. Overall, this turned into a 10 point increase in wOBA. This may have been influenced by luck to some degree, because his xOBA in both seasons are effectively identical, at .347 in 2015 and .345 in 2016.  No matter how you look at it, though, Kang had two months in 2016 that really stand out on the scoresheet: July and August- but before we get to that we’re going to have to talk about what happened in June.

In the middle of June Jung Ho Kang was accused of sexual assault.  This is a delicate subject, and I do not have all of the necessary facts to give this conversation the justice it deserves. I know that the victim completed a rape kit and filed a formal complaint with police. From what I can tell police have reached out to her for more information, but they have yet to find the answers they seek.  I don’t know what will come of this, where the evidence may be, whether charges will be filed, or whether they are warranted.

However, in July, Jung Ho Kang had the weakest month of his career.  He hit .182/.250/.255 with a .229 wOBA and a measly 39 wRC+.  He struggled so mightily that he lost his starting role on the team for a brief period of time.  Some might say the sexual allegations played a role in his performance, and that sort of argument, in my opinion, crosses a line into a potentially harmful and offensive realm that I’m not willing to delve into. It makes me sick that I have to write about these sorts of incidents at all, to be honest, but it would be dishonest to address Kang’s season without bringing it up.

In July, his strike out rate went through the roof, jumping up to 30.5% from his career average of 21.3%. His average exit velocity dropped to 91 mph, and his average vertical launch angle dropped to 11 degrees. A 91mph ball with an 11 degree launch angle isn’t a terrible combination, in general. Balls hit up the middle like that tend to be high BABIP singles, but that is only true when you spray the ball around the field and intersperse them with other forms of contact. Instead, as you can see in the spray chart below, Kang hit a huge number of weak ground balls to the shortstop along with occasional fly balls to right and left field. 


In contrast to July, Kang had an outstanding month of August. Actually, it is probably more accurate to call it an outstanding 2 weeks in August, during which he hit .278/.409/.583 with a .420 wOBA and 167 wRC+. During this period his average exit velocity jumped up to 94 mph while his average launch angle soared to 19 degrees. Granted, this was a very short lived period that ended when he injured his shoulder during a slide.

Jung Ho Kang is now halfway through his four year contract with the Pirates, and in this time he has suffered a horrible knee injury, allegations of sexual assault, and a shoulder injury that cost him nearly 3 weeks of play.  He has had tremendous ups and downs over the course of these two seasons, and it seems no matter how much he does to answer certain questions, others always seem to pop up in their wake.

We have learned a few lessons about him already, which you no longer need to worry about.  He can hit a major league fastball.  And he can hit it pretty hard, too. His average exit velocity on a four seamer is 95.1 mph, and he has a 5.2% swinging strike rate.  The MLB average exit velocity on the four seamer is 90.5 mph with a 7.6% swinging strike rate. He’s solidly above average in both cases.  He doesn’t handle two seamers and sinkers quite as well, but in both cases he is either equal to or lower than the league average swinging strike rate. He has been weak with cutters, though.  

Kang’s Stats Versus Various Pitches
Total Vel SwStrk Called Ball EV Total Vel SwStrk Called Ball EV
Kang MLB
CU 171 78.9 6.4% 16.4% 38.0% 88.2 62512 78.2 9.4% 19.2% 34.7% 87.2
FC 72 87.8 13.9% 15.3% 33.3% 85.9 34714 88.6 10.3% 15.2% 33.2% 87.4
FF 480 93.2 5.2% 22.7% 37.1% 95.1 258680 93.1 7.6% 18.5% 33.9% 90.5
FT 140 92.1 5.7% 22.9% 32.9% 88.3 97373 92.4 5.7% 18.3% 34.7% 90.5
KC 24 81.3 12.5% 33.3% 29.2% 92.3 14930 80.8 9.6% 19.2% 32.6% 88.4
SI 115 92.7 3.5% 26.1% 34.8% 88.1 45705 91.7 5.7% 19.7% 34.1% 90.4
SL 328 85.0 13.1% 22.0% 34.5% 89.4 108713 84.8 14.0% 15.1% 31.4% 87.1

As for his power, that has translated as well.  Obviously he has hit 36 home runs over the past two seasons, both of which were partial seasons.  More importantly, he had a 7% Value Hit rate in 2015, which isn’t particularly impressive, but it swelled to 9.4% in 2016. That means 9.4% of his plate appearances ended with a batted ball that almost certainly would go for extra bases regardless of defensive alignment or ballpark. Only 39 batters in MLB had a higher Value Hit rate (min 350PA).  Kang has managed to create outstanding contact on fly ball and line drives, averaging 94.2 mph and 97.2 mph exit velocity respectively.  He averaged 96.6 mph on line drives last season, so this number seems sustainable.  His fly balls in 2015 weren’t as impressive, though, only 88.8 mph.

Kang’s Batted Ball EV and Launch Angles

Total GB LD FB
205 97 45 45
EV Vert Horiz EV Vert Horiz EV Vert Horiz EV Vert Horiz
2015 91.1 6.8 -5.7 90 -4.9 -13.7 96.3 17.1 -3.1 88.8 35.3 10.1
2016 90.9 9.7 -5.4 87.6 -4.0 -14.2 97.2 16.9 -3.6 94.6 34.5 -0.1
For Horizontal Angles: -45 = Left Field, 0 = Center Field, 45 = Right Field

Kang’s balls in play have been trending towards extremes as he has spent more time in the majors.  His fly balls and line drives are harder hit and with closer to ideal launch angles while his ground balls are increasingly weak and on increasing worse trajectories. This runs the risk of turning into an all or nothing batter if the trend persists over the next few seasons.  Personally, I don’t believe that will happen.  Instead, I expect Kang’s quality of contact to stabilize somewhere between 2015 and 2016. I expect his ground balls to rebound, fly balls to regress, and line drives likely remain unchanged.  I expect his BABIP to increase, pulling up his avg and obp with it, and his power to fall slightly, perhaps closer to 20HR for a full season.

The questions about his future performance lie in two major categories from my perspective.  First, will he be suspended by MLB as a result of the sexual assault allegations?  Second, can he play a full season without injury?  Even with the injuries he’s suffered to date, Kang has managed solid overall production, but with off the field problems and a potential looming suspension, you never know how he may fare psychologically.  Or criminally, if it comes to that.

Andrew Perpetua is the creator of CitiFieldHR.com and xStats.org, and plays around with Statcast data for fun. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewPerpetua.

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I am startled by the comment, “It makes me sick that I have to write about these sorts of incidents at all”.

We hear about similar allegations with politicians, so why must we feel ill when athletes are involved?

From what I have heard in Korean media, Kang met the alleged victim through a social media dating or hookup site, met her in a coffee shop and brought her to his hotel room.

Of course, consent can be withheld at any time and under any circumstance, but this paints a very different picture for me.

It is possible that something quite bad happened next, but the circumstances make me think this is blackmail, and he is the victim. The lack of cooperation by the victim with the police while Kang has made himself totally available to the authorities lends credence to this hypothesis. I think the effect on his game was from being falsely accused.

Revealing his identity to a relative stranger was his big mistake, and promiscuity isn’t exactly a virtue either, but I don’t buy Kang as a rapist. So far, the police aren’t buying either.

I think Kang will put this behind him and continue his growth as a MLB player. You’ll recall an earlier FG article where it was shown that pitchers were avoiding pitching to Kang, throwing to him like Miguel Cabrera. That is still who he is, as judged by the MLB pitchers, and it will re-emerge. Watch for him to pass 30 hrs this year.