Pirates’ Kang enjoys second-half power surge

September 11, 2015
Pittsburgh Pirates' Neil Walker (18) is greeted by Jung Ho Kang after driving him in with a two-run home run during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Kang, right, exploded in July, hitting .379/.443/.621 to win the National League Rookie of the Month. He hit five home runs in August, his highest monthly total, to remain in the thick of the race for Rookie of the Year. (AP)

By Yoo Jee-ho

(Yonhap) — With an impressive power surge in the second half of his rookie season, Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates has gone from a question mark on the bench to an exclamation point in the heart of the lineup.

Through the Pirates’ 6-4 loss at home against the Milwaukee Brewers Thursday, Kang has posted some of the best power numbers on the team since the All-Star break.

He carries a .313/.369/.570 second-half line through Thursday, after going 2-for-6 with two singles against the Brewers. He has the best slugging percentage on the team in that stretch, ahead of the perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. Kang is second behind McCutchen in the on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), and also ranks second after the center fielder with 27 RBIs in the second half.

Kang has 15 homers on the year, and 11 of them have come in the second half, more than anyone on the Pirates. Kang also leads the team with 102 total bases since the break.

It has been an outstanding transformation for the 28-year-old whose chances for success at the big league level were considered dubious at best in the early part of the season.

Kang was a part-time player in April and had a .269 average while getting limited to 26 at-bats. After bouncing back in May, Kang was held to just one homer and a .221/.310/.286 line in June.

Kang then exploded in July, hitting .379/.443/.621 to win the National League Rookie of the Month. He hit five home runs in August, his highest monthly total, to remain in the thick of the race for Rookie of the Year.

Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs remains the clear front-runner. He leads all NL rookies with 86 RBIs and a .847 OPS. He’s also tops among freshmen in the senior circuit with a 4.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) total on Baseball-Reference.com’s scale. Kang is second in WAR with 4.0.

Matt Duffy of the San Francisco Giants is enjoying a solid season but has tailed off in recent weeks. He has just two home runs since July 26. Duffy batted at least .300 in May, June, July and August, but is batting .256 in nine games in September.

Overall, he has a .299/.336/.436 line with 10 home runs and 66 RBIs.

The one thing that could work against Kang is that some voters may not consider him a true rookie. The 28-year-old made his professional debut in South Korea in 2006 and had seven full seasons under his belt before signing with the Pirates.

History suggests that for international rookies with prior professional experience outside of the MLB would have to put up dominant numbers to compel the voters to give them the top rookie honors in the majors.

In 2001, Ichiro Suzuki, then with the Seattle Mariners, won both the American League MVP and the Rookie of the Year after winning the batting title with a .350 average and leading the league with 242 hits and 56 steals. He also picked up his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger honors. He had played nine seasons in Japan before arriving in the majors.

More recently, Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox was a unanimous choice as the AL Rookie of the Year award last season thanks to 36 home runs, 107 RBIs and a .964 OPS. Abreu also finished fourth in the MVP voting. He had made his Cuban league debut as a 16-year-old in 2003 and played 10 seasons there.

Kang’s numbers for the season — 15 homers, 56 RBIs and a .288/.357/.467 line through Thursday — may not be overwhelming enough to get him past Bryant. That, however, doesn’t make Kang’s second-half turnaround any less impressive.