Throughout the course of this baseball season, many questionable personal decisions have been made by Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. But while many decisions are debatable, the reasoning behind them, in most cases, is understandable.
Much has been made about Andrew McCutchen’s horrid season. Some critics, including some of those here at Rum Bunter, believe that Cutch should be moved down in the batting order, or even placed into a platoon role. But even Cutch’s harshest skeptics should at least understand why Hurdle continues to bat him third every night. After all, McCutchen has established himself as a superstar over the past five years so it is easy to see why the Pirates believe he will return to form.
For the past month, I’ve thought that the Pirates should bench Josh Harrison, at least against right-handed pitching, for Adam Frazier at second base. But Harrison is more established in this league than the rookie Frazier is, and he is a better option defensively. While I still can’t justify J-Hay being in the leadoff spot, he has been hitting better recently, so hopefully, he is getting hot at the right time.
I also believe in setting Josh Bell free. John Jaso has been the Websters definition of mediocre at first base, and Bell probably would be an improvement over Jaso at the plate right away. But Bell also happens to stink in the field, whereas Jaso has been solid defensively. Bell’s defense, along with the fact that the Pirates like to have their hot prospects have at least a full year of Triple-A experience, makes Bell’s situation understandable, even if we may not agree with its handling. So while the Pirates have been questionable with many of their personal choices, for most of them, at least I can see the other side. That brings us to Jung-Ho Kang.
As we all know, Jung Ho Kang burst onto the scene last season as a rookie from the Korean Baseball Organization. He played very well in 2015, and could have been the National League Rookie of the Year had his season not been cut short in early September with a horrible leg injury. When Jung Ho Kang returned to the Pirates’ lineup in May of this season, it looked like he hadn’t lost a step. As May turned to June, Kang was doing well, with a slash line of .262/.315/.600, good for a .915 OPS, with six homers and 18 RBI to go along with it. Then, things started to go wrong.
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To bombshell was dropped on July 5th, when we heard that the Chicago police department was investigating claims that the Pirate third baseman had committed sexual assault against a woman in early June when the Bucs were in Chicago for a three-game set with the Cubs at Wrigley. I won’t dig deep into the accusations, but Kang’s play has undoubtedly been affected.
The Pirates have benched Jung Ho Kang for David Freese in two of the past three games as of Sunday morning, and Kang’s starts at third base have been less frequent here in the month of August, so maybe the Pirates are figuring things out.
Sure, Kang had a great 2015. Yes, he has significant upside. But how many players in Pirates’ history and baseball history have been great for a year, only to have the league adjust to them and never reach that level again? Does the name Adrian Brown sound familiar to you? How about Zach Duke? What about Chris Duffy? More recently, how about Jose Tabata? All of these guys peaked early, for one reason or another. I’m not suggesting that Kang will fall into his crowd, but I’m saying that it is possible.
The Pirates should not handle things through this stretch as if they think of Jung Ho Kang has an Andrew McCutchen-like pedigree. He had a good year last season, and that’s fantastic, but what has he done for us lately, and what cold hard evidence is there that says a breakout is inevitable? Here is an X’s and O’s explanation for Kang’s problems.
On June 15th, while I was watching the Pirates play the Mets on TV, I heard the color commentator, John Wehner, say something that caught my attention (it doesn’t happen often). I don’t remember the exact quote, but it related to the fact that pitchers had started to stray away from throwing Jung Ho Kang fastballs. This made me think for a little bit, but Kang smacked a two-run homer off of Jacob DeGrom later in the evening, so that helped ease my concerns. I didn’t think about Wehner’s comments for almost two months, but now, I find them to have lots of substance, and Fangraphs supports that. In 2015, pitchers threw Kang a fastball 55.7% of the time. This year, that number is down to 47.3%. Kang is also seeing more curveballs in 2016, as he has seen the duce 11.4% of the time compared to 7.0% in 2015. So, maybe pitchers are figuring this guy out, and that could be contributing to the downfall.
Not only has Jung Ho Kang’s hitting fallen off, but his fielding has been even worse. An awful error at Dodger Stadium on Saturday was his tenth this season, and he’d likely have more if he had played in April. Thankfully, the Pirates have a guy who is hitting and fielding better than Kang right now, and he also has a more proven track record. His name is David Freese, and if you look at baseball reference, he has been better than Kang in almost every statistical category.
In short, Freese has been too good a player not to be in the lineup every day, and unlike Kang, he has been around long enough to have earned the benefit of the doubt (as his 2011 World Series MVP award would indicate) so whether he is at first or third base, he should not be riding the pine. I’d hate to say it, but Kang needs some pine time to, as Clint Hurdle would say, “unplug.” The Pirates should still give Jung-Ho a start once in a while to see if he’s getting it, but until he proves himself to be the Pirates best option at the hot corner, Clint should not treat him as such this season.
I don’t have anything against Jung Ho Kang as a person, as some in the media seem to since they caused a mini frenzy over him having a simple bobble head doll. I do not dislike Jung Ho Kang as a player, as I believe that he is the Pirates third baseman of the future, and when I look towards the hot corner on Opening Day 2017, I expect to see Jung Ho Kang there and making an impact. If I were to bet, I would say that 2017 will see the return of the Jung-Ho that we grew to love last summer, as he will have a clear head assuming his legal situation is resolved by then. But next season is still seven months away, and the Pirates are in a playoff hunt now. To get to the playoffs, we need to see less of Jung Ho Kang, and more of David Freese.