First Pitch: What Does Jung-Ho Kang Need to Do to Justify His Deal?

There was a report today that the Pittsburgh Pirates agreed to a deal with Jung-Ho Kang for $16 M over four years, including an option for a fifth year. The full details aren’t out yet, so we don’t know the breakdown of the deal, how the option year works, or whether the deal is actually confirmed for $16 M over four years.

We also don’t know what type of production Jung-Ho Kang can bring to the U.S., as he’s the first hitter to make the jump from the KBO, which is a very offensive-friendly league. Is he going to be a bench player? Will his power transfer over in a big way, leading to an eventual starter? Are the Pirates the first team to tap into the Korean market for a discounted star player, similar to the Cuban market several years ago? Those are more questions that will eventually be answered when Kang actually makes the jump.

There is one question we can answer today: what would Kang need to do to justify his current deal? He’s an interesting situation. He’s not a traditional free agent, since he could only negotiate with one club. The Pirates are paying $16 M over four years, plus the $5 M posting fee, which puts their investment around $5.25 M per year on average.

It might not be fair to apply the current cost of a win on the open market to Kang, since he never hit the open market. But that’s the best way to determine a player’s value, so that’s what I’m going with here. The current cost of one WAR is around $6 M, with some estimating higher and some estimating slightly lower. I’ll go with the $6 M figure, since it seems conservative. That means Kang needs to average an 0.875 WAR each year over the life of his contract in order to justify his price, plus the posting fee.

That’s not a difficult thing to do for a guy like Kang, who projects to be a solid utility guy on a conservative scale, and possibly much better on a more optimistic view. Chris Stewart had ab 0.9 WAR last year, posting a .693 OPS, although he also had a lot of value due to his position behind the plate. Josh Harrison had an 0.9 WAR in 2011 over 204 plate appearances, hitting for a .272/.281/.374 line. He got a lot of value from his defense all over the infield. Jose Tabata had an 0.8 WAR in 2011 in 382 plate appearances, posting a .266/.349/.362 line. In 2013, Gaby Sanchez was at an 0.8 WAR in 320 plate appearances, with a .254/.361/.402 line. He needed more offense to get to that value, since he wasn’t providing a ton of value defensively as a first baseman.

Kang is along the Harrison line, in that he will have a chance to get value from positions like second base, third base, and shortstop. The reports on his potential at shortstop aren’t favorable, so I wouldn’t expect positive defensive value there. But it’s not out of the question for him to provide some defensive value at the other two positions. That puts less pressure on his bat, to the point where he could end up below a .700 OPS and still be worth an 0.9 WAR if he gets enough plate appearances.

Keep in mind that this is the break-even point for Kang’s reported deal. Based on the market rate, the Pirates aren’t paying for much expected production here. And it’s likely that they’re expecting a good chance for big value from Kang, and for him to exceed this break-even level of production.

Links and Notes

**The top 20 prospects countdown started last week. It will resume next Monday, after mini-camp is complete. The full top 20, along with the rest of the top 50 and all 200+ profiles of Pirates’ minor league players, can be found in the 2015 Prospect Guide, which can be purchased on the products page of the site. If you purchased last week while I was out of town, your book was shipped out today.

**Radhames Liz on Why He Chose the Pirates, Changes to His Game, and Jung-Ho Kang

**Jung-Ho Kang Leaving For Pittsburgh This Week to Potentially Finalize a Deal

**Pirates Reportedly Agree With Jung-Ho Kang on Four-Year Deal

**Pirates Hire Jamey Carroll as Special Assistant to Baseball Operations

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2015 Mini Camp Roster

**Pirates Re-Instate Wes Freeman From the Voluntary Retired List

**Baseball America Unveils 2015 Top Ten Pirates Prospects List

**Winter Leagues: Alen Hanson Reaches Base Three Times as His Team Nears Elimination

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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Is kang a realistic replacement option for Alvarez at first in 2016?


No, but Josh Bell will be.


possible? i guess?

Realistic? nah.


I could be wrong, but didn’t Brian Cartwright have a wRC+ projection for Kang in the teens? That wouldn’t be much less than what Alvarez is likely to do himself, if at all.


If Kang keeps showing plate discipline and keeps hitting those mistakes like he can hit them out of any major league park. In his 40 hr video only a third of his homers just cleared and the rest cleared easily and a few left the park. When he gets a pitch to pull it definitely has a chance in any park. That is my biggest disappointment with Pittsburgh hitters. They miss a lot of mistakes. Seems like they were bad at guessing what was coming the count. I understand the aces can and will win the guessing game because they pretty much can locate all their pitches just not only their best pitch. I’m going to hope that Kang can justify the chance the Buc’s are taking on him.


Someone help me out with this…Kang is said to be lacking in his defense but athletic. If he is used to playing on turf wouldn’t that make hit balls get to the fielders quicker than grass??? If the balls slow down a bit then it would help him with defense right or am I wrong about grass slowing the ball down?


Yes and no. You’re definitely correct about speed of the ball on grass vs turf. As far as making defense easier, not so cut-and-dried. The longer the ball takes to get to the fielder, the less time he has to beat the runner with the throw.

As for what people are saying about Kang’s defense, this should help explain:


Thank you for the info.

dr dng

Do you think he goes to Indy at all for a few week or months to get regular AB’s and play some 2nd, & 3rd as well as SS or does he go straight to Pittsburgh?


IMO, at the present time, WAR is way down the list of ways to justify Kangs value. If you want to use WAR the only WAR that is available is his Korean WAR numbers. IMO, WAR numbers are probably not good at all because expected WAR numbers are lower for bench players than they are for starters, there are exceptions however. The number used in this article 0.875 WAR is a bench player WAR and nothing about Kang leads me to believe he was signed to be a bench player including his salary. The Pirates scouted, watched him on video and determined how good he is, just like they do any other player, the MLB stats come later. IMO, there are no numbers that I know of that can make a value projection at this point.
IMO, Kang has not shown anything that would make me believe he can’t play anywhere in the infield as good as what the Pirates have now. He is playing on turf, it will be much easier for him on grass, he was quick enough to play SS on Turf, he should do well on the slower grass. He might have a few problems with pop-ups in Bradenton because the wind can be vicious.
IMO, the Pirates were smart enough not to judge Korean talent ceiling vs MLB/Minor league talent ceiling when evaluating him, You could say that Independent league players are not on the same level as any minor league level, but it did not stop the Pirates from coming up with Holdzkom, what WAR were they using when they took him, the WAR they were using was a scout that found him and liked what he saw.
This post is just an opinion.


I disagree with the logic used here, but it’s not like Tim is alone in this type of flawed analysis.

The cost of a win on the open market is about $6m, which means Kang would need 0.875 wins/yr to justify his contract on the open market. NOT on the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Major League Baseball is not an even playing field. This much is clear. If the Pittsburgh Pirates are paying the same amount for a win as the New York Yankees, the Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t going to be a very good team. Likewise, if the New York Yankees aren’t willing to pay much more than the Pirates for a win, they aren’t utilizing their extreme financial advantage.

Keith Law, someone who has actually worked in a Major League Front Office position, has written before about how the above logic is completely flawed. Literally not a single team in baseball uses the number referenced.


I don’t think there is any flaw here, Tim is answering a different question than you are asking.

Large revenue teams set the price of a win because they are disproportionally active in the free agent market. Yes the
Pirates cannot buy as many free agent wins as the Yankees but they still need to purchase those wins from the same market.

The people who have popularized the concept of a price of a win also have worked in front office on the analysis side. And I think it would be pretty neglectful if teams didn’t attempt to model the free agent market.


Oh yeah? Who would those people be?


The authors of The Book all have worked for MLB teams, Sky Andrecheck now runs the Indians’ analytics department.

I think it means it is always better to find under-valued players, but sometimes you will have to pay the market rate. Obviously if you are the Pirates it is best to do this as little as possible.


I don’t think anyone should take that kind of $/WAR thing as an end-all-be-all, but i don’t see why it can’t be a quick and dirty way to evaluate good-ness of a contract relative to good-ness of a player.

But yeah there are definitely many other things to consider like remaining FA (and trade targets) at a position, available funds for a team, etc.

whether you and keith law like it or not, FA contracts have seemed to follow that kind of pattern. obviously some exceptions.

but it’s an effective quick and dirty way to evaluate these things. but yeah. if anyone treats it as more than “quick and dirty,” then they’re wrong.


just to elaborate, it works as a tool for evaluating individual players and contracts. but the difference between the Pirates and Yankees is that the Pirates need to provide more league minimum 0-3 year guys and more ridiculously successful bounceback types in order to cancel out the guys they pay “market” value for.


And at that point, you’re not really evaluating what Jung-Ho Kang did to justify his contract. You’re evaluating what the Pittsburgh Pirates had to do in order to build a competitive team while employing Jung-Ho Kang.


Huh? You’re the one who’s doing that by insisting that the Pirates have to use a different dollar-per-WAR metric than everyone else. You brought team context into the discussion.

The Pirates don’t have to be below market value for WAR for every single player, precisely because they have so many guys who are young and cost-controlled or on bargain contracts. The Pirates can afford to plug gaps at the periphery of their roster with market-value contracts because the total cost is low enough that it won’t adversely affect the team in the long run. Obviously, the hope is that Kang will indeed provide plenty of surplus value along the way, but Tim’s point – and it’s a perfectly valid one – is that he just needs to be a competent 1-WAR utility infielder to justify the contract in the end. That doesn’t change whether you’re talking about the Pirates or the Dodgers.


That’s just not true.


Oh? Care to expound?


I explained why above, which I learned from a guy who actually, you know, has worked in the game.

If you need more than that, I can’t help you.


All I got from the above is the notion that the Pirates somehow operate in a vacuum wherein the market value of players across baseball doesn’t pertain to them.

I think it’s safe to say that most of us realize the Pirates have to pay far below the market rate whenever possible. That doesn’t mean, though, that they exist on a different plane than the industry-wide cost-value of players. The Pirates can and do make wholly justifiable market-value signings. If Kang turns out to be nothing more than a half-decent utility infielder, the Pirates would still be getting their money’s worth whether you and Keith Law appreciate that or not.


If that’s all you got from the above, then there isn’t much sense continuing our conversation. Have a good day.


You rambled for four paragraphs about the differences in teams’ financial wherewithal somehow rendering irrelevant the baseball-wide market rates for players. When I called that into question, you immediately retreated into your smug prick shell.

But yeah I’ve lost interest in trying to hold a discussion with someone who’s unable to communicate without resorting to misplaced condescension.


Absolutely, jay.

I’m guessing the real point Tim was trying to get across was that in 2015 Major League Baseball, Jung-ho Kang doesn’t have to do all that much to justify his contract. And he’s right.

I just think it’s impossible, with the information we know, to attempt to place an actual number on the amount of wins Kang would have to provide specifically to the Pittsburgh Pirates in order to break even.


Pretty much this, maybe justify isn’t the right word, but knowing what level Kang has to perform at in order to break-even (don’t like that word either) relative to the market rate is useful to know.


I would like to see the guy field the position at SS before saying he can’t play there. I would not be surprised to see him take over at SS if he can field the position, I think his bat will be quite a bit better than Mercer. Mercer did better than I expected defensively last year but he is far from gold glove material. It is quite possible Mercer becomes the utility guy if Kang can handle defense at SS.


I disagree that Mercer is far from gold glove material. He is a very good defensive SS. Plus range, great arm, low error totals. It is really gonna be interesting to see where Kang fits in because he will really have to hit and be at least average to take substantial ABs away from Mercer.


Well he doesn’t have plus range or a great arm, but other than that…


I haven’t read the fielding bible or any metrics not on baseball reference. Which say he is above average. His throwing is excellent. He may not have a cannon but he was the most accurate in the mlb last year according to an article on this site last week. He had 0 throwing miscues. Mercer threw over 90 mph in college and played 3B also . I’m sure someone has some stats to dispute his range but the arm is really good.


I agree 100%. I see the Pirates trying Kang at SS, which would give him the best value. From the reports I’ve seen, this guy is Athletic and has legit pop. The greatest question for him sticking at SS is the change from turf to grass (no small change, by any means!). But If the Bucs are willing to spend this money,I believe they will do everything to find out if he can be a MLB caliber SS!

Scott Kliesen

I know it’s easy to look at the numbers aspect to determine value. Certainly, plenty of ways to do that. In this case, I’m more excited about the depth and options he provides to organisation.

When looking at Pirates IF, there are lots of question marks. Between, production and health, each of them are uncertain to a degree. Kang provides another insurance policy along w Sean Rodriquez.

And of course, it will also increase competition. The more compitition, the more productivity, the more wins.


Kang would be the first position player fot come from the KBO to MLB, but there have been nearly 120 go the other way, playing in the KBO after playing in the majors or the minors in the U.S., so we do have a fairly good idea of how much the hitting stats change from one context to the other.

The change in batter;s walk and strikeouts indicate, by my measure, that the KBO pitchers are very similar to Triple-A, although Dan Szymborski says close to Double-A.

The league BABIP jumped up to .330 in 2014, accounting for much of the increase in scoring. The HR% was also up, but was no higher than many seasons in the early to mid 2000’s. 2011 and 2012 were just overall down years for hitting.

Kang’s team Nexen’s home stadium increased HRs about 15% in 2013 and 2014 after being below average for a couple yearz before that, and has averaged barely over 1.00 since 2008.


bl: I hope I am in that group of folks who will be saying “boy was I wrong about that guy”, but this is very much of a stretch for the Pirates. IMO, comparisons to AA or AAA only applies to players who start in the American minor league system and progress through the various levels while experiencing success and failure or players who are coming from baseball factories such as Cuba or Japan. Is Baseball in South Korea comparable to the leagues in Japan and Cuba? Nope. DR, Venezuela, Mexico? Probably not. At 27, I see a kid who will spend a lot of time at Pirate City before, during, and after Spring Training. I think the Pirates are committed to “eat” a great deal of that first year’s salary.


If the Pirates do feel they’ll need to “eat” a great deal of his first year’s salary, then structure the contract so he’s only making league minimum.

Leaves them still only paying the guy about $5m/yr over the rest of his deal.


Good point on the signing bonus, although I think Tim has said that usually gets paid evenly throughout the duration of the contract? Might not have been him.

I like your thoughts to keep the first year low, both for the potential role he may serve, and to keep a little space open for midseason acquisitions.


NMR: I hope that they have structured it so that not too much is expected of him in the first year. I remember when Aroldis Chapman came in, the Reds gave him a 6 yr/$30 mil contract, but the first year only involved a $1.5 mil Bonus and a $1 mil salary. He spent almost all of the first year in the minors, and about a third of the second year in the minors before being called up.


NMR, if AAV is indeed $4 mil, my guess is around $2 mil signing bonus and $500K for 2015. Then $1 mil annual increases, so effectively $2.5/$3.5/$4.5/$5.5. But I was wrong once before.


i dunno if this answers your question, but there are players who have gone from america to korea. for example, Eric Thames was a bad defensive corner outfielder who OPS’d about .700 in the majors. he was a ~0 WAR player because bad defense cancelled out any positive from his bat.

Thames was one of the best hitters in the KBO last year (but was still well behind Kang).

So it’s reasonable to expect a ~.700 ops (or maybe even a little higher) from Kang. But instead of a bad defensive corner outfielder like Thames, he’s a potentially effective and versatile infielder which changes the WAR calculus greatly for the better.

So i dunno if i’m hitting your point, which seems to be just that the KBO is weak. But hopefully it at least gives you some hope that Kang can stick.

Arik Florimonte

I think the Pirates have to get much better than that to justify the contract! Consider: replacement level is about 47 wins. The Bucs are aiming to win the division, say 95 wins (+48 WAR), and they have, say, $96M payroll, that means they can afford to spend about $2M per WAR. For every guy they pay $6M / WAR they need to find another 2 WAR for basically nothing.


Sure, I don’t think anybody would ballyhoo 4/5 seasons of 0.875 WAR out of Kang as a success, but the point is that there is a relatively low bar to clear in order to not be an enormous burden. Truth is a ~1 WAR utility infield is useful. But clearly the FO thinks that there is a non-zero chance that Kang turns into more than a utility infielder and therefore one must take that that possibility into account if one wants to calculate what the FO thinks they are paying fore. E.g. If Kang were to become a 3-4 WAR starting middle infielder, or a starting 3B then that contract becomes a steal. So hypothetically maybe they think that there is a 25% chance Kang is 4 WAR IF, a 60% chance that he is a 1 WAR Util and a 15% chance that he does nothing.

4 WAR x 4 years = 16 WAR x 25% = 4 WAR
1 WAR x 4 years = 4 WAR x 60% = 2.4 WAR
0 WAR x 4 years = 0 WAR x 15% = 0 WAR

6.4 WAR / 4 years = 1.6 WAR per year
$5.25 mil / 1.6 WAR per year = $3.28mil/war

Of course those probabilities are made up, but you get the idea. In the above, it make most sense to think that the Pirates are paying $3.28 mil/WAR, which is much closer to what they can pay for on the open market.


I’m fairly sure that’s how projections of this type are done. Essentially an average of a range of possibilities. Regardless, that just validates your logic, which I think is sound.


I think your analysis makes a great deal of sense, and I would add one thing to it. The method of using the straight dollar per WAR equation doesn’t take into effect the distribution of talent. There are very, very few guys who can compile 7or 8 WAR–that’s why they get paid, because they are very scarce. The guys who put up 0.9 WAR…well, there are quite a few of those guys, many of whom are available for less than $5 mil a year. So I think Kang has to do better than that to “justify” the deal.

Arik Florimonte

Right. You can’t just fill up with the cheap guys, or you’d end up with a roster full of +0.5 ish WAR guys…. You have a payroll of maybe $10M and lose 110 games. Maybe if you have some good prospects in that group you can squeeze out another 10 wins. So you gotta pay some big money for some big upgrades.

But if you pay $6M per WAR, you can only afford another 15 wins, which leaves you around 75-80. You need to do better, so I’d suggest $3M/WAR is closer to the break-even value for players like this.

This is just a back-of-the-envelope type calculation to make a point. I realize there are many possible outcomes such as Tetrapharmakos points out below.

Lukas Sutton

Right off the bat, tough to use 95 wins as the default number to win the division. Even good teams struggle to do that, so near 90-92 can take it some years. Looking at projections, it’ll take very good years to get an NL central team at 95 wins.

“Need to find another 2 WAR player for basically nothing” you just described Jordy Mercer pretty well. PIT has a roster built pretty well on guys making less than they should/could. AJ took a bit of a decrease, Cutch is obvious, Marte’s deal is still nice next year, Cole still cheap. You got Liriano for around market value, Pedro arguably overpaid, and Walker not a huge discount. The rest are pretty good deals.

Streamer has PIT at projections of roughly 34 WAR as a team, and STL at roughly 35 WAR as a team. While every fan of a team can point to projections and go “this guy is going to do better than that”, i contend the current projection of Polanco at 1 WAR is low and makes PIT and STL pretty close if nothing changes going into the year. Last i checked, Streamer had STL at a final record projection of 87 wins, PIT at 86. Looking at the overall picture, PIT is still getting overall great deals for the team it has. 85-90 wins at their payroll is rather impressive.


When I see what just the top ten 2nd baseman made in 2014 compared to Walker I think he is a huge discount compared to the mlb. Maybe not a huge discount in context of the Pirates and there payroll I would agree to some degree.


Zobrist, Altuve, Dozier and Gordon all represented better $/WAR value than Walker last year. That is almost half of the top 10 sample that you just cited. That is not to say that Walker wasn’t a value (he definitely was) just that he didn’t represent “a huge discount” when compared all the other top ten 2nd basemen.

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