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Jung-ho Kang: The risks and opportunity cost

What can we expect from Korean standout Jung-ho Kang, and how will he fit into the Pirates' future plans?

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[Editor's Note: This is the site's first piece by new contributor Cody Callahan! Welcome him aboard.]

The Pirates signed Jung-ho Kang, the 27-year-old Korean shortstop, to a four-year, $11 million dollar contract with a club option in year five. The acquisition of Kang this past January is noteworthy because he is the first position player to sign a major league contract out of the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO).

The collective reaction to an offseason move is largely influenced by the perception of the organization making that move. The team context becomes even more important when there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding an incoming player. Kang is the first player to transition from the KBO to MLB, so it becomes difficult for an observer to use his KBO production to formulate an opinion of the acquisition. Consumers of baseball have access to scouting reports to compensate for the unknown; however, the scouting reports in this scenario will also contain more uncertainty than usual. When acquisitions carry a considerable degree of ambiguity, e.g. the acquisition of a shortstop from the KBO, the consensus opinion will likely rely on the team’s recent history of transactions. If this type of acquisition is carried out by the Oakland A’s, people might try to find reasons to approve of the transaction. If the New York Jets make the same type of acquisition, the move might be quickly condemned without much investigation.

People generally view the Pirates' front office as prudent decision makers, which is apt given their ability to build a competitive roster within their means in recent seasons. However, there are some apparent risks to this signing that are likely being overlooked because of the Pirates' sterling reputation and the modest nature of this investment.

Kang hits taters. The six-foot, 215 pound middle infielder had the best slugging percentage last season and had finished in the top 5 in total home runs since 2012. It is fair to be incredulous of these figures, because they were accrued in the KBO. However, they are still impressive and allude to Kang’s power potential.

Kang also strikes out. He finished in the top 5 in total punch outs over the past two seasons and posted a 21.2% strikeout rate in 2014, his final KBO season. If Kang struck out at the exact same clip in MLB during the 2014 season, he would have ranked 36th in K%, which would put him between Garrett Jones and Brett Gardner. While not desirable, this strikeout rate (K%) does not approach a Mark Reynolds level of whiffing.

The poor K% is concerning because it is one of the most significant statistics that can be used to project MLB performance. The correlation between K% at a lower level and K% at the MLB level is high. I have done a great deal of research into the performance of Japanese position players in MLB. What I found was essentially no significant linear relationships exist between most Japanese offensive statistics (e.g. slugging percentage, BB%, RBIs) and that same statistic in MLB. K% is the only exception.

I built a regression model, which used one variable (strikeout percentage over the last three seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball) to project strikeout percentage over the first three seasons in MLB. I chose to use three seasons of data in MLB for my response variable because of the typical length of MLB contracts given to Japanese position players. The p-value of my explanatory variable indicated significance and the adjusted R-square value was .68. Admittedly, the sample size is small. However, this regression model illustrates the linear relationship between Japanese K% and MLB K% is significant.

I am not claiming that KBO and NPB are equivalent leagues or similar enough to assume relationships in one league apply to the other. I am simply illustrating that K% in less competitive leagues is typically indicative of the K% a player will incur in MLB. I believe this relationship was highlighted in Moneyball(!).

This is why we should be skeptical of Kang’s offensive production in the MLB. There is so much uncertainty surrounding this player because he is the first to transfer from the KBO. However, the statistic that we can predict with the most certainty, K%, is one of Kang’s most glaring weaknesses.

The Pirates do not have a huge amount invested in the middle infielder. However, with Neil Walker seemingly unlikely to re-sign after 2016 and Josh Harrison signed to a 4-year deal, it appears the Pirates may have designs of making Kang the second baseman of the future. This assumes the 22-year-old Alen Hanson continues to disappoint in the minors and Jordy Mercer maintains his role as starting shortstop through 2018.

While this may not feel like a huge financial risk, because it isn’t, there is an opportunity cost associated with committing to Kang long-term. The money and roster spot invested in Kang could have been invested in a free agent middle-infielder either now or next offseason. Because Kang functions essentially as a hedge in the event that Hanson will not be serviceable, it may have been wise to invest in a player with more certainty.

The Pirates, and scouts in general, know more about baseball than I do. It is very possible they see something specific in Kang’s game that leads them to believe his success will continue at the next level. However, that claim cannot be made using his KBO statistics. The only thing we know with some level of certainty is he will strike out a great deal. There are no prior KBO players to create a more comprehensive offensive projection, which leads me to believe that such a projection would be conjecture.

When it comes to Kang optimism, my recommendation is to tread lightly.

. . .

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Cody Callahan is a Contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on the Twitter at @codycallahan.