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Pirates, South Korean star Kang optimistic bat will translate to MLB

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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang prepares for a game against the Rays on Saturday, March 7, 2015, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang uses a high leg kick as he bats against the Twins on Friday, March 13, 2015, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
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Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang warms up before a game against the Rays on March 10, 2015, at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla.

The great migration to industrializing cities during the 1970s resulted in building, and living, vertically in South Korea. Most South Koreans reside in urban areas, and the majority live in high-rise apartments. Few lived like Jung Ho Kang.

From his 16th-story Seoul apartment, he had a view of the Han River cutting through the center of the ancient city and the mountains beyond it. He could see the trendy restaurants lining the riverfront, a proper vista for a star.

Last year in this space he contemplated his future. Inside the modern steel-and-glass apartment is where he watched major league games on his laptop, following former Korean Baseball Organization players, such as Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu, play 10 time zones to the east. He watched no player more closely than outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.

Hee-Seop Choi, a first baseman, was the first South Korean position player in the majors, but Choo was the first Korean-born hitter to impress. Both Choi and Choo were signed as amateurs and developed in the American minor league system. No KBO-bred hitter had attempted the move across the Pacific — not until Kang (pronounced “Ghang”).

“(Choo) was an influence,” Kang told Trib Total Media through his interpreter. “Two years ago, I wasn’t sure (about the majors). Last year I felt confident. I wanted this opportunity.”

Kang hesitated to make the leap. The Pirates do not yet know what they have in Kang, who is perhaps the greatest mystery in all of major league spring training. But where there is unknown, where there is risk, there is opportunity.

A star is born

Kang was born April 5, 1987, the son of an architect and homemaker in Gwangju, the country’s cuisine capital. What Kang said he will miss most is his mother’s marinated mackerel and fermented cabbage. They were a staple of Sunday family dinners.

Kang was born into a baseball-crazed culture.

Baseball, called “yagu” in South Korea, has been played on the peninsula since at least the 1890s. How it arrived is debated. In 1921, a team of major league players touring Asia visited Korea, and the sport’s popularity grew. The game was so popular, and enough disposable income existed in an emerging economy, that the KBO began play in 1982 with six teams.

Korea began exporting a new kind of product to America in 1994 — major league baseball talent — when pitcher Chan Ho Park signed with the Dodgers. Park was the second Asian player to appear in a major league game and first since Japanese pitcher Masanori Murakami debuted with the San Francisco Giants in 1964.

Kang was 7 when Park, his starts televised in Korea, made his debut. Around that time, Kang’s father asked him a question.

“My dad asked if I wanted to play baseball. That’s how I started,” Kang said. “I loved the game.”

How to build a pro athlete

To understand South Korea’s culture of discipline, Pirates minor league hitting coach Larry Sutton, who spent three seasons in the KBO, cites the LPGA Tour. South Korean women golfers have won 13 of the past 18 tour events despite coming from a country with only 200 golf courses. How is this possible? Practice, Sutton said. Repetition over rounds.

The same discipline applies in baseball.

When Sutton signed with the Hyundai Unicorns in 2005 — KBO teams are owned by corporations — the volume of reps shocked him. In spring training, there were two pitchers, behind two L-shaped screens, throwing batting practice to two hitters simultaneously. KBO hitters have three batting practice sessions per day — morning, afternoon and evening — during a three-month spring training.

“I was a veteran and knew how to pace myself,” said Sutton, a former major leaguer. “The first time I took batting practice, after three minutes I was like, ‘Where is the next hitter?’ They said, ‘No, you have 10 minutes.’ … All they do is practice. For us in America, people would say that’s absolutely crazy. Pitchers throw a 100- to 200-pitch bullpen between starts.”

Certain South Korean high schools are known for baseball and recruit talent. Kang attended a baseball powerhouse in Gwangju, which counts Choi and Byung-Hyun Kim among its alumni. Kang took turn after turn in batting cages.

Kang focused on a particular drill that might explain his quick bat, what he calls “fast tee ball.” The drill requires a batter to swing as quickly as possible, with a coach rapidly replacing the ball on the tee.

Practice helped Kang develop a feel for the region’s trademark timing mechanism, the leg kick, which traces back to Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh, who belted an international record 868 home runs.

Kang varies his leg kick. If he’s ahead in the count, it will be exaggerated to create more power. He widens his stance and lessens the kick in two-strike counts.

“It was taught that way when I was young,” Kang said. “It’s just the way it is.”

Kang was selected in the second round of the 2006 KBO draft by the Unicorns, who later were bought by the Nexen Tires. Though Sutton was a teammate of Kang’s for two seasons, the Pirates didn’t ask Sutton for a scouting report. Instead, the Pirates wanted a feel for the culture, work ethic and makeup. Sutton knew few American prospects worked like Kang, and none had faced as much pressure.

Under pressure

Because of their hostile neighbor north of the 38th parallel, young South Korean men are required to serve two years in the military. There are few exemptions. An Olympic medal is one, and being on a national baseball team that wins an Asian Games title, played every four years, is another.

Chinese Taipei won the 2006 championship, and the South Korean team, which included Kang, Choo and Ryu, faced Taipei in the 2010 title game in Guangzhou, China.

“From a very young age, they understand what it is to play under pressure,” Sutton said.

South Korea routed Taipei, 9-3. The team celebrated afterward at a Korean barbeque restaurant. Kang hit .515 with three homers and eight RBIs in the games. Said Kang: “I was relieved I could focus on baseball.”

A new generation?

Kang wants to break a stereotype. While a number of Asian pitchers have succeeded in America, Asian hitters are viewed as suspect. South Korea and Japan have sent 67 players to the majors, 51 being pitchers. Only two hitters, Choo and Hideki Matsui, have hit 20 or more home runs in a season.

“I want to prove Korean players can hit (major league pitching),” Kang said.

There are doubts. Ben Badler, who covers international scouting for Baseball America, said scouts question whether Kang can hit major league pitching. “You see that (doubt) reflected in the $5 million posting fee,” Badler said of the Pirates’ winning bid to negotiate with Kang.

Kang hit 40 home runs last season. How many were enabled by weaker pitching, eroded by expansion and KBO defections to the majors and Japan?

“It’s not Little League pitching,” said Sutton, who compared the KBO to America’s Triple-A minor leagues.

How many home runs were due to hitter-friendly parks? Nexen’s ballpark is 322 feet down the left-field line and 387 feet to center.

Still, there is a difference between Kang and the generation before him: He simply is stronger.

“I really worked hard to improve power,” said Kang, built at 6-foot, 200 pounds. “In high school, I started lifting a lot.”

With more calories in today’s diet, South Koreans are catching up to the size of Western populations. For instance, the average South Korean adult male is 3 inches taller than his malnourished North Korean counterpart, according to an Economics and Human Biology journal study.

Partly because of his size, there are believers the power will migrate. Dan Farnsworth, a swing analyst for Fangraphs.com, predicted immediate stardom for Kang, just as he did for another unknown, Cuban hitter Jose Abreu.

The believers include the Pirates. Kang peppered the metal roof of batting cages beyond the left-field fence at a Pirate City back field early this spring. In his second spring at-bat, he homered to right-center against Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Marco Estrada.

While scouts doubt Kang has the range to stick at shortstop, the Pirates wanted the bat. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said he believes in Kang’s ability to hit and adjust. He believes in his power.

“Everyone who watches him take batting practice,” Huntington said, “is going to very quickly realize he can drive a baseball.”

Lost in translation

Being the first into a market presents risks but also opportunity, said Raymond Sauer, founder of SportsEconomist.com and a Clemson economics professor.

“Everyone is searching for the diamond mine,” Sauer said. “If you get there first, you have an advantage.”

For instance, Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes were undervalued by clubs uncertain about how Cuban league statistics would translate to the major leagues. Teams have thrown big dollars at Cuban stars this offseason.

The opportunity for the Pirates with Kang perhaps falls under the Warren Buffett investing axiom: Be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy.

But Kang’s performance is more difficult to project analytically than Cuban players. How do you translate his statistics when there is no comparison of former KBO players who made a direct jump to the major leagues?

Still, many South Korean hitters have played in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, and a number of NPB hitters played in the majors. That became the link for a comparative analysis of Kang, Pirates analyst Dan Fox said. It’s similar to the process sabermetrician and Baseball Prospectus cofounder Clay Davenport uses in his statistic translations, equating Kang’s 2014 KBO season to an .856 OPS in the majors.

The Pirates also leaned on traditional scouting. Two years ago, the club began sending scouts across the Pacific for repeated looks.

“We really started to pay attention,” Huntington said. “We watched a ton of video. We had enough information that we were comfortable making the investment.”

The Pirates were comfortable enough to sign Kang to a four-year, $11 million contract.

“Unfortunately for Kang,” Huntington said, “we hope the next player out (of South Korea) gets a lot more money.”

Will Kang’s teammates become comfortable?

Although Kang has made steps to assimilate into the clubhouse culture — flashing the Zoltan sign after his homer earlier this spring, learning some Spanish and asking for a nickname — there remains at least a language and cultural divide. The Pirates said much was lost in translation when Kang told the Korean press he thought he could start at shortstop. Jordy Mercer said Kang never clarified for him.

As the Pirates prepared for batting practice Thursday, Kang stood alone with his interpreter. Will he integrate himself into the clubhouse? Will he hit? No one knows for sure, but the Pirates are optimistic he will be part of the next Korean migration: KBO batters flocking east across the Pacific.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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