Jung Ho Kang: dark horse for National League all-star team

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Jung Ho Kang is on fire. On Thursday night against the San Diego Padres, Kang sent an Ian Kennedy pitch into orbit, giving the Pittsburgh Pirates an early 3-0 lead. It might as well have been the home run heard ’round the world, as much of Korea was able to listen to the home run call by Korean announcers. After starting the year one-for-13 at the plate, Kang is batting .341 with three home runs and 17 RBIS, raising his average on the season to .308. In the process, Kang has accumulated a WAR of 1.4 and has essentially stolen Jordy Mercer‘s role as the starting shortstop for the foreseeable future.

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However, when the first update came out for the National League All-Star Game Ballot, Kang didn’t make the cut (only the top five vote-getters for shortstop were listed). Neither did Jordy Mercer, who doesn’t deserve to make the game with his play this season. Of course, one of the biggest reasons for this is because Kang isn’t on the ballot for NL shortstops (or at any position for that matter). This is because Jordy Mercer is the Pirates’ representative on the ballot for shortstops. He has played in more games and has accumulated more at-bats at shortstop than Kang has to this point of the season. That may change soon, but for now, Kang would have to be voted in as a write-in player to make the all-star team.

So, Kang can make the game in a few different ways. First, as the starting shortstop as voted in by the fans. Second, as the backup shortstop as voted in by the fans. Third, as a starter or backup at another position as voted in by the fans. Fourth, as a manager selection. Or fifth, as the final player selected as voted in by the fans.

Josh Harrison was selected to the all-star game last season as a utility player. This sparked some controversy because many non-Pittsburghers didn’t view Harrison as deserving as some other players that didn’t make the team. Needless to say, he ended up making that selection look well-deserved by year’s end. So Kang making the team as a utility player isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

But is Kang as deserving as some of the other shortstops in the National League? That is, does he deserve to make it as the starter or as a backup based on stats alone (after all, the voting turns most of the selection process into a popularity contest, so some undeserving players will naturally make the team and vice versa)? The top five vote-getters for the NL as of the first update on May 27th were, in order, Jhonny Peralta, Starlin Castro, Troy Tulowitzki, Zack Cozart, and Brandon Crawford. Peralta, Castro, and Crawford all play for teams in major markets, so it’s natural that with even with decent to above-average play that they’d be towards the top. Tulowitzki is a well-known name and a popular player, and the game is in Cincinnati, so its residents will be voting like crazy to get Cozart into the game.

Josh Harrison was selected to the all-star game last season as a utility player…He ended up making that selection look well-deserved by year’s end. So Kang making the team as a utility player isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

If you were to evaluate Kang next to these five, his stats don’t look too shabby. In terms of Fangraphs’ version of WAR, Kang has been good for 1.4 wins above replacement this season. That would rank him in front of Peralta (1.3), Cozart (1.1), Castro (-0.2), and Tulowitzki (-0.2), but behind Crawford (2.1). However, Kang has 66 less plate appearances than Crawford (Kang has 116, Crawford has 182). At Kang’s current WAR/PA rate, if he had the same number of PAs as Crawford, he would have a WAR of 2.2, slightly higher than Crawford’s. Even though WAR isn’t the be-all end-all baseball stat, it’s helpful nonetheless. Given more starting time, Kang could become the most productive and valuable shortstop in the National League by the time of the all-star game. Kang also has the highest batting average of the group at .308 and the second highest OBP (.371 to Crawford’s .374).

As Kang gets more playing time at shortstop, and if he keeps producing at the rate he already has so far this season, he’s bound to get noticed. National media outlets will begin to write stories about him (The New York Times already recently ran a piece on him), and his infectious love of the game and his strong sense of self-confidence will make him popular with many younger baseball fans (see: his post-home run bat flip). Once he gets on the ballot (which hopefully shouldn’t take long), he should garner many votes.

Many of his Korean fans will take to the ballot. Many Pittsburghers will vote for him. Hopefully his stats will speak for themselves. If he isn’t already, Jung Ho Kang will become a dark horse candidate to make this year’s National League all-star team. When the time comes, #VoteKang because, based on his performance so far this year, he may very well deserve it.

Next: Pittsburgh Pirates using doubles to fuel offensive success

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