Jung-Ho Kang represents somewhat of a test case for the Korean Baseball Organization. When he makes his debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, Kang will be the first hitter from the KBO to play in the major leagues. Kang was among the top players in his home country. Last season for the Nexen Heroes, the 27-year-old infielder hit .356/.456/.739 with 40 home runs in 117 games.
The Pirates signed Kang to a four-year, $11 million deal after offering a $5,002,015 posting fee. While South Korean ballparks are generally smaller those in MLB, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington is on record saying that he believes Kang will hit for power in MLB.
"He hit a lot of balls in Korea that would have been out of the ballparks in the major leagues, too," Huntington said. "What we really like about him is that he has a good overall approach to hitting."
It's going to be impossible to figure out what Kang can do in the majors until, you know, he actually plays a major league game. Ryan Sadowski and C.J. Nitkowski, on the other hand, have both seen Kang play first hand. Both said that, amongst the talent in the KBO, Kang stood out.
Sadowski, who pitched for the Lotte Giants of the KBO for three seasons and now serves as an international scout for the team, said that Kang projects as a serviceable major league infielder with power.
"He does things a little bit differently as it comes to his swing path and his approach at the plate," Sadowski said. "He's a very talented guy. A good arm and good power. Decent runner and has pretty good baseball instincts. Overall, as a player, if you were to grade his raw tools, he's a major leaguer."
Kang features some interesting mechanics at the plate.
Kang features a high leg kick and an uppercut swing. The trajectory of Kang's swing combined with the significant amount of torque he generates with his back leg and hips play a significant role in the power that attracted the Pirates to Kang.
FOX Sports analyst C.J. Nitkowski pitched in Korea for two years and briefly spent some time on the Heroes as Kang's teammate. Nitkowski said that the style of baseball in Korea is similar to the way the game is played in the US.
"For me, comparing the two Asian countries that I played in, Korean baseball is much closer to American style baseball," Nitkowski said. "There are more guys, more aggressive. You maybe don't see the plays at the plate and the hard slides that we have here, but you have guys that play the game hard, which I like. I like the Korean players because I think it's more comparable. I don't think that'll be a problem for him. I don't think he's going to come here and see a real significant style of baseball that he's not used to. It's nothing vast, but I think he'll see some more power, some more harder hit ground balls consistently and some bigger pitching and some bigger off-speed pitches he hasn't seen before."
For Kang, the toughest part about coming to the US will the transition to a new culture, Sadowski said.
"I think that the transition for a Korean player coming to the States and coming to Pittsburgh, which is not Los Angeles. It's an American town," Sadowski said. "LA is Koreatown. For Ryu, that was a huge advantage for him. If you were to grade out where he fits on the talent scale, he's towards the very, very top where Kang Jung-Ho is middle-upper echelon, but still not in the same level as Ryu, so I think that the transition is going to be a bit more significant with the acceptance of failure, the ways to get the most out of scouting reports, more out of nutrition, the most out of the adjustment process and to have a great translator and making sure that messages are conveyed."
There will also be a significant jump in talent level in the pitching Kang faces.
"The pitching is significantly better, and that's not a knock on KBO," Nitkowski said. "There are some really good guys there, but I would say that the pitching in the big leagues is going to be more of a challenge. I think he's going to see some nastier breaking stuff and some bigger fastballs that he's not used to, so he'll have that adjustment that he'll have to go through."
Nitkowski views Kang's future success (or lack thereof) as incredibly important towards the perception of Korean ballplayers in the US.
"His success is just as important as Ryu's success has been. You have a guy that comes out of KBO and gets a chance to play in the big leagues and all that does is to help other guys get out on the road and helps lead and gets them more on the map," Nitkowski said. "I'm pulling for him. I could see him at third base. I could see him at second and maybe a guy that gives you 12-15 home runs and gives you good enough defense. If he you can hit 15 these days, right-handed power is hard to come by and adequate defense, which I think he could do, and 12-15 home runs is what I think he could provide."