Back from injuries, Pirates’ Kang Jung-ho hits ground running

May 12, 2016
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In this Associated Press photo, Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a solo home run off Cincinnati Reds’ starting pitcher Alfredo Simon during their Major League Baseball game in Cincinnati on May 11, 2016

SEOUL, (Yonhap) — The Pittsburgh Pirates’ infielder Kang Jung-ho might have missed more than seven months of action with severe leg injuries, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s been swinging the bat only five games into his 2016 season.

The South Korean third baseman belted his third home run of the season Wednesday (local time) in Cincinnnati against the Reds. It was part of his 2-for-3 night, as the Pirates rallied for a 5-4 victory.

Kang only made his season debut last Friday, the Pirates’ 29th game, and launched two homers right out of the gate. And his third homer came in just his 14th at-bat.

As a rookie last year, he had 15 home runs in 421 at-bats, and didn’t hit his third home run until his 110th at-bat.

Kang, a former All-Star in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) before joining the Pirates via posting, suffered devastating leg injuries last September on a takeout slide by Chris Coghlan of the Chicago Cubs. Doctors compared Kang’s tibial plateau fracture and a torn lateral meniscus to injuries sustained in a car accident.

Yet here he is, already in midseason form at the plate despite his own admission that he’s not yet at 100 percent physically.

And Kang has come out being more aggressive at the plate. In his first game back, he swung on the first pitch in each of his first three times up, with the third try resulting in his first home run. He’s 2-for-6 with a home run and three RBIs when swinging on the first pitch.

In 2015, Kang had success in the same situation. He batted .408 (20-for-49) when taking a hack at the first pitch, with four home runs, three doubles, one triple and 14 RBIs.

He’s seeing fewer pitches early on than he did last year. He took an average of 4.03 pitches per plate appearance, which ranked him 19th among National League hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. Prior to Wednesday’s game, Kang was seeing 3.15 pitches per plate appearance in 2016.

Kang’s free-swinging ways can be partially explained by his job security. He had a slow start to his rookie season before working his way into the everyday lineup and eventually finishing third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. This year, he was assured a spot in the regular lineup before he returned from his injuries.

When a hitter doesn’t know whether he’ll still be in the lineup the next day, it could be difficult for him to go up there hacking and risk hitting a soft grounder for a quick out. For someone like Kang, it’s a risk well-worth taking — and the rewards have been good so far — because an 0-for-4 day doesn’t necessarily mean a trip to the bench the following game.

Another South Korean player, Baltimore Orioles’ backup outfielder Kim Hyun-soo, recently admitted that he was losing confidence and becoming passive at the plate because he didn’t want to hit into an out on the first pitch and waste his precious few opportunities.

Kang is also swinging for the fences — four of his five hits so far have gone for extra bases — because the Pirates are in a more desperate need for power from the middle of their order than last year.

Prior to Wednesday’s win, they were second in the NL with 318 hits but had 30 home runs to rank 11th. Though they were also not a homer-hitting club last year — 140 to rank 10th — the Pirates have become even less so, having lost hard-hitting infielders Pedro Alvarez (27 home runs) and Neil Walker (16) over the winter.

Their starting rotation remains relatively thin behind their top two dogs, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, though Juan Nicasio has shown some promise. They have only 10th best ERA as a team in the NL, and it has put more pressure on the offense to score runs. The hitters have responded putting up 162 runs in 33 games, sixth in the league and good enough to keep the Bucs at 18-15 despite mediocre pitching.

As the Pirates try to keep up with the red-hot Chicago Cubs, who won the best record in baseball at 25-8, Kang should start getting even more support from resurgent veteran Andrew McCutchen.

The former NL MVP extended his hitting streak to six games with a solo home run in the fourth inning Wednesday. He leads the club with seven long balls, despite another sub-par month of April, in which he batted .226 with 25 strikeouts in 109 plate appearances.

Though McCutchen is putting up career-worst numbers in contact rates — swinging more and making less contact on pitches than ever — it is perhaps an encouraging sign that he hit one out to the opposite field Wednesday. His May splits have been traditionally stronger than his April numbers, with a career .320/.408/.514 line in May compared to .255/.344/.423 line in April prior to this season.

 

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