Since the news yesterday that the Pirates placed the top bid for Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang, I've seen some unhelpful discussion comparing Kang to players in completely different situations. Here's why some of those comparisons are off base, and why Kang's situation is so unique.
First, some off-base comparisons (exact words paraphrased to protect the innocent):
What a waste. It's like those two pitchers the Pirates signed out of India.
No. It isn't. Baseball is popular in Korea, and Kang is a professional. Baseball isn't popular in India, and the two pitchers the Pirates took no-risk fliers on had approached the game as complete novices only months before. Korea and India are, of course, on the same continent, but comparing Kang to a pair of amateur Indian pitchers is like comparing a Minnesotan hockey player in the AHL to a hockey newbie from Guatemala.
So Kang is a lot like [insert name of random MLB player from Japan].
This is less ridiculous, but still isn't quite right. The KBO in Korea is markedly different from NPB in Japan. About a year ago, I asked FOX Sports' C.J. Nitkowski, who has played in both leagues as well as the majors, to explain the differences between them:
Korean baseball, even though they're years behind as far as how long they've been playing the game, especially professionally, they have a little bit closer to an American style of baseball. They're a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger, and generally, as a culture, they're a little bit more aggressive. That definitely plays out on the baseball field. They're just behind. The country is obviously smaller, too. If they had the same population size and they had been playing the game as long, I tell people the Koreans would be better than the Japanese. You get a little bit more of an aggressive style of play. [In] Japanese baseball, [there's] a little bit more contact, a lot of running, not a lot of power. And I hate to use the phrase "small ball," but that is kind of how they play. They'll bunt in the first inning in Japan, where you won't necessarily see that in Korea.
A glance at the stats bears that out -- the KBO is a much more offense-heavy league. In 2014, KBO teams averaged 5.62 runs per game with an OPS of .807. In a league of ten teams, 11 players, including Kang, batted at least .340. Teams in the Pacific League in NPB, meanwhile, averaged 4.01 runs per game, while teams in the Central League there averaged 4.22.
But more than that, the styles of play in the KBO and NPB are fundamentally different, as Nitkowski suggests, and you can't really use Japanese players who transitioned from NPB to the big leagues to explain how a player might transition from the KBO to the big leagues. Here's Chris Resop on what it was like to play in Japan:
Over there, these guys, I can't tell you how many times I saw the first three pitches of a game be offspeed pitches. There were times when I saw a guy throw nine pitches without throwing a fastball to start a game. Are you kidding me? First pitch curveball, ball, second pitch curveball, it's like, "What are you doing?" And then the first guy of the game gets on base, the next guy's bunting! Here it comes! I mean, it's just like, it's small, small baseball. They will beat you to death with singles all day long.
We had a leadoff hitter on our team who - this is crazy, but he literally practiced fouling the ball off. He'd sit at the plate and he'd choke up, and he'd put a net as if it was gonna hit the third-base dugout, and he'd take balls, and he'd go like this, swing real late and foul it off straight that way. And that's all he'd do, because they can't catch up to, you know, 94-95. They don't have the strength or they just don't have the bat speed. So they just sit there and foul it off, and they know that. So they'd just sit and wait for you to throw the changeup or throw the breaking ball, and then they'd hit it, because they can keep their hands back but they can't catch up to anything hard. And they will beat you to death. And you throw 12-pitch at-bats, and you're like, "I gotta throw something else now," you know? I didn't like it.
Think what you like of Resop's characterization of NPB players, but that doesn't describe KBO baseball at all.
Here's another off-the-mark Kang comparison (again, paraphrasing):
Shin-Soo Choo and Hee-Seop Choi show that Korean position players can have some success in the U.S.
True, I guess, although Choo and Choi were both signed as teenagers and developed in the states. Kang will arrive in the U.S. as a 27-year-old.
So what is the KBO like, and what comparisons are relevant? That's where things get tough, because there's no track record of position players coming through the KBO's posting system and playing in the big leagues. There's Hyun-Jin Ryu, who arrived in 2013 after seven seasons in the KBO and played well, but he's a pitcher.
We do know that the KBO plays as a big-time hitter's league, and in terms of the offensive context and the level of competition, probably the closest analogue in the U.S. is playing somewhere like Albuquerque in the PCL. In fact, the level of play in the KBO is probably a bit worse than that -- Dan Szymborski suggests it's more like Double-A, but with tons of offense.
This makes sense when one looks at how former MLB players do there. Eric Thames hit .343/.422/.688 last year. Felix Pie hit .326/.373/.524. Jorge Cantu batted .309/.375/.524. Yamaico Navarro hit .308/.417/.552. We don't need a sabermetrician to tell us those numbers don't really add up -- Thames, Pie, Cantu and Navarro were all marginal players in the major leagues, and here they are in the KBO posting numbers that look like Miguel Cabrera's.
That doesn't mean, however, that we should dismiss Kang's numbers out of hand. Even in a wild offensive context, Kang stood out, posting a 1.198 OPS to lead the league by 79 points in that category. He also did that as an infielder with at least some defensive value, and he's only 27.
How Kang will turn out in the majors is very difficult to say, and this is a situation where you'd hope the Pirates' scouts made the right call. It looks like he might have to move off shortstop at some point, and it's unclear how his right-handed power will play in PNC Park. And the fact that the winning bid for Kang only cost about $5 million suggests it's unlikely he'll be a star.
But again, we don't know that. No one does. Kang will be a pioneer and a guinea pig. Szymborski projects Kang will hit .230/.299/.389 in the big leagues next season; given that Kang isn't likely to be a plus defensive shortstop, that would put him close to Asdrubal Cabrera in terms of value. But obviously, the error bar on that projection is enormous.
So what will the Pirates have here? Imagine there's a 27-year-old player who, for whatever reason, is stuck in the minor leagues. He's never played in the majors. Maybe he got drafted late and got hurt; maybe he spent a couple years playing in Mexico. From a scouting perspective, there's nothing obviously wrong with him. And he's raking. Basically, he's Erubiel Durazo heading into the 2000 season. Maybe your team will promote this player to the big leagues and he won't hit. But don't you want your team to take that chance?
Kang is a wild card, and an exciting one. He's from a league where the level of competition isn't that high. But he's the best player there, and assuming he signs, he's about to make a leap no one has made before. I don't know what the result will be, but I'm happy for the possibility that he'll be wearing a Pirates uniform.