* Updated November 11, 2014
Jung-Ho Kang (pronounced “Ghang”) is a right-handed shortstop for the Nexen Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). The 2014 season marks his 7th season as a full-time starter. Kang has been one of the premier infielders in South Korea for the last several years. He is currently under contract with the Heroes, but after the season he will be eligible to sign with a foreign team via the Posting System with the Heroes’ permission. Kang has previously expressed his desire to play in MLB, in part to evidence the high level of play of which Korean infielders are capable. Earlier this year, both the owner and the manager of the Heroes stated that they would like to support Kang in his wishes to play in MLB after the season.
Career in South Korea
Kang was born on April 5, 1987 (Age: 27) in Gwangju, South Korea. He has a robust frame, standing 6’ 0” and weighing 212 lbs. He attended Gwangju Jaeil High School, one of South Korea’s most prestigious baseball powerhouses, which also produced former MLB players such as Byung-Hyun Kim (1999-2007), Jae-Weong Seo (2002-07) and Hee-Seop Choi (2002-05). Kang was drafted in the second round of the 2006 KBO draft by the Hyundai Unicorns (which later became the Nexen Heroes). Kang has spent his entire career (2006-Present) with the Heroes Organization, although the ownership of the team has changed. During his KBO career, he has won three Golden Glove Awards (2011-13) and he joined the 20-20 (20 HR and 20 SB) club in 2012. Kang put up premier offensive numbers in 2012 and 2013, ranking among the top 5 in HR, RBI and BB. He is also a three-time All-Star shortstop (2010-12).
Kang’s success at the professional level led to his inclusion in the Korean National team during the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games and the 2013 World Baseball Classic. In the 2010 Asian Games, he batted 0.515 AVG (8-for-13) with 3 HR and 8 RBI, leading his team to a gold medal. This gold medal was significant to Kang’s career, as it made him exempt from his two-year mandatory military service.
Below are Kang’s KBO career statistics:
- 2006: .150/.150/.200, 10 G, 3 H, 1 2B, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB, 3 Errors
- 2007: .133/.133/.133, 20 G, 2 H, 0 2B, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 0 SB, 0 Error
- 2008: .271/.334/.392, 116 G, 98 H, 18 2B, 8 HR, 47 RBI, 31 BB, 65 K, 3 SB, 13 Errors
- 2009: .286/.349/.508, 133 G, 136 H, 33 2B, 23 HR, 81 RBI, 45 BB, 81 K, 3 SB, 15 Errors
- 2010: .301/.391/.457, 133 G, 135 H, 30 2B, 12 HR, 58 RBI, 61 BB, 87 K, 2 SB, 23 Errors
- 2011: .282/.353/.401, 123 G, 125 H, 22 2B, 9 HR, 63 RBI, 43 BB, 62 K, 4 SB, 13 Errors
- 2012: .314/.413/.560, 124 G, 137 H, 32 2B, 25 HR, 82 RBI, 71 BB, 78 K, 21 SB, 12 Errors
- 2013: .291/.387/.489, 126 G, 131 H, 21 2B, 22 HR, 96 RBI, 68 BB, 109 K, 15 SB, 15 Errors
- 2014: .356/.459/.739, 117 G, 149 H, 36 2B, 40 HR, 117 RBI, 68 BB, 106 K, 3 SB, 9 Errors
- Career: .298/.383/.504, 902 G, 916 H, 193 2B, 139 HR, 545 RBI, 387 BB, 601 K, 51 SB, 103 Errors
Although Kang’s primary position in high school was catcher, the Unicorns loved his versatility and transformed him into an infielder. He cracked the starting lineup on opening day of his rookie season, but spent most of 2006 and 2007 in the Futures League (Minor League of KBO). After the 2007 season, the Unicorns dissolved due to financial distress, and Centennial Investment, an investment advisory company, bought the team, re-naming it the Nexen Heroes. The new ownership sought to reinvigorate the entire organization, which led to the Heroes coaching staff providing plentiful opportunities to young players, including Kang. During the 2008 season, Kang seized the opportunity as the starting shortstop and batted .271 with 8 HR in 116 games. In 2009, Kang’s power surge erupted and he hit 23 HR, appearing in every game of the season. During the 2010 season, although his power dipped slightly he batted over .300 for the first time in his career, and he also raised his on-base percentage by 42 points.
In 2011, after his heroic performance in the 2010 Asian Games, Kang fell into a minor slump and was placed on the reserve roster during the middle of the season. He was asked to bat in the cleanup spot but could not live up to expectations early in the season. However, he was able to recover in the second half and finished with strong numbers. The 2012 season was a career year for Kang. While batting cleanup, he recorded career-highs in almost all offense categories including: batting average (0.314), on-base percentage (0.417), slugging percentage (0.560), homeruns (25) and stolen bases (21). In 2013, he once again hit over 20 HR and led the Nexen Heroes to their first postseason during their short history.
Kang was sizzling hot during the 2014 season, putting up incredible numbers. He recorded 40 HR, 36 2B, and 117 RBI, with an astonishing .356 batting average (all career-highs). In addition, he showed improvement on defense this year, marking the lowest number of errors committed per game since he became a full-time player. Kang’s monstrous season led to him being selected to the 2014 All-Star team, as well as being presented the Golden Glove Award.
Although Kang’s offensive numbers this season are certainly impressive, it may be difficult for teams to determine how Kang’s offensive production will translate to MLB. Former KBO and MLB pitcher Ryan Sadowski recently wrote an article about the change in baseballs this season in the KBO, and how that may have influenced the surge in power numbers throughout the league.
One of Kang’s biggest tools is his raw power. Although the shortstop position puts heavy emphasis on defense, Kang has been one of the best sluggers in KBO for years, hitting at least 20 HR in three straight seasons (the only shortstop in the KBO to do so). He also makes good contact and can get on base.
Defensively, Kang is known for his strong arm. Although he is not very agile in the field, his strong arm makes up for it in his ability to play the shortstop position. However, he has committed errors in routine plays at times, which has led some experts to doubt whether he can be an everyday shortstop in MLB.
Quoting an MLB scout: “I think Kang has a functional arm at SS, but he may be better suited at 3B or RF. He doesn’t have the range to play SS and I don’t think he has the glove to play 3B. He may be able to play RF but that position will require better offensive production. He certainly has the arm to play RF.”
Interest from MLB Teams
Due to his possible eligibility to play in MLB after the 2014 season, Kang attracted many MLB scouts to the Nexen Heroes spring training camp which was held in Surprise, Arizona in early 2014. The list of teams included the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds. Even the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals showed interest, dispatching their scouts even though their spring training camps were based in Florida, not in Arizona.
The interest from MLB teams has continued during the season. Scouts from the Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres, Kansas City Royals, Boston Red Sox, Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks have scouted Kang in Korea. On June 6, he hit three home runs in front of MLB scouts and left a strong impression.
Brian Corey, a scout with the Indians and a former KBO pitcher, spoke highly of Kang, saying “He deserves such interest from MLB teams because he has great power and technique.” Another MLB scout based out of Asia noted, “He has good power for a shortstop, so any team would like that.” He added, “It is more a matter of how much he expects to be paid upon signing and what he expects his role to be once he gets there.”
Hyuk Sohn, a Korean baseball analyst who specializes in covering MLB said, “I heard that teams seeking Kang might ask him to play third base, and I think that would be good for him because he could focus more on hitting.” Sohn predicts Kang “can produce more than 20 home runs in a season with a batting average between .280-.290 in the big leagues.” Kang played third base in the 2010 Asian Games, so he has clearly shown comfort at that position.
Many media outlets have tried to draw comparisons between Kang and other Asian born infielders in the major leagues. Recent unsuccessful signings of Asian born infielders such as, Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Minnesota Twins 2011-12) and Hiroyuki Nakajima (Oakland Athletics) may cast doubt on the potential of Kang’s success in MLB. There have been others such as Tadahito Iguchi (2005-08) and Akinori Iwamura (2007-10), who put up marginal, yet disappointing numbers. It would be inappropriate, however, to make an apples-to-apples comparison between Kang and other Asian born infielders because they play different positions and have different styles of play.
With the upcoming shortstop free agent market being relatively thin, (Hanley Ramirez, J.J. Hardy, Jed Lowrie, Stephen Drew, etc.) Kang should be able to draw some attention from MLB clubs, as shortstops who can hit for some power don’t come along very often. If he is able to cross the pacific, Kang will become the first position player from the KBO to head directly to the MLB.
Photo Credit: yonhapnews.co.kr
Reference: baseball-reference.com, MyKBO.net, koreabaseball.com, naver.com, daum.net, kbsn.co.kr, soonsports.com, sports.chosun.com, sports.donga.com, koreajoongangdaily.joins.com, isplus.joins.com, osen.mt.co.kr, newsen.com