The Pirates' recent signing of Jung-Ho Kang has been analyzed six ways to Sunday, despite the fact that no one really knows how he's going to do. I don't either -- I can rattle off facts about his performance in Korea, but since Kang's situation is so unique, I'm not at all sure how that performance will survive the transition to the big leagues.
Let's say it does, though. Let's say he's a decent defensive shortstop who can hit for power. If that's what the Pirates end up getting, we ought to be thrilled, because it's a skill set that's becoming very hard to find.
You might have heard that the MLB Network recently ranked Jordy Mercer the sixth-best shortstop in the big leagues. I didn't see the segment and don't know the rationale for it, but my first thought upon hearing of it was, "That's insane." Mercer's pretty good, I thought, but there's no way he ranks sixth among MLB shortstops.
After doing a little bit of research, I still think that's insane. But maybe not as insane as I thought. Here's Fangraphs' leaderboard for shortstops who played at least 300 innings last season. There simply isn't much offense to go around. Only five players at the position posted wRC+ figures of 110 or higher. One of those, Hanley Ramirez, can't play defense at shortstop and is moving elsewhere. Another, Troy Tulowitzki, is hurt all the time and only logged 375 plate appearances last year. Another, Danny Santana, played the position part-time. That leaves Jhonny Peralta and Starlin Castro, with Ian Desmond just missing the cut. By contrast, seven second basemen and 15 third basemen had wRC+ figures of at least 110. Nine entire teams, meanwhile, posted wRC+s below 80 from the shortstop position.
This might change in the near future, as players like Xander Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor and perhaps Addison Russell and Carlos Correa begin to establish themselves at shortstop. But right now, the position is weak.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Shortstop is the most difficult position to play, so there should be fewer good hitting shortstops than second basemen or third basemen. But we tend to underestimate how hard it is to find a shortstop who can hit.
Quick, name one of the nine teams with a wRC+ below 80 at shortstop last year. You named the Mets, didn't you? They've been looking for a real shortstop since Jose Reyes left! Ruben Tejada LOL!
Actually, no, and the Mets project to be somewhere near the middle of the pack in shortstop production next year. Their shortstops aren't inspiring, but almost no one else's are either. There's a big perception gap between what a good shortstop should look like and what a good shortstop actually is right now.
That brings us to Jung-Ho Kang. There's so much we don't know about how he'll end up, but he probably won't be a starting shortstop in the big leagues. He'll have to make some adjustments from playing on turf to playing on grass, and he's big and slow for a shortstop.
But you know who else is big and slow for a shortstop? Jhonny Peralta, who posted the best WAR in baseball at the position last year. It's possible for a player to succeed at shortstop even if he doesn't fit the mold. And if Kang can play shortstop and if he brings even a fraction of the 40-homer power he displayed in Korea, the Pirates might really have something, because the edge he would provide over his rivals on other teams could potentially be quite large. Shortstops who can hit are very hard to find. He'll have the advantage of the Bucs' smart defensive positioning, too.
Those are some big ifs, and again, it's not at all certain what Kang will end up doing. The most likely scenario is that the doubters (most MLB teams likely among them, given Kang's relatively low posting fee) are right, and Kang will be a bench infielder type who provides a bit of power but is stretched at shortstop. The default assumption right now probably should be that Mercer is the better player. But if the Pirates get more than they're likely anticipating, Kang could turn out to be a very valuable player, in part because his competition is so weak.