Why Jung-Ho Kang Doesn’t Need to be a Brilliant Fielder

It’s very rare for a Major League club to sign a presumed every-day starter to a contract that will total either 4 years/$17M (a sum that includes a 2019 buy-out plus posting fee) or 5 years/$21.5M (a sum that includes a 2019 team option plus posting fee). But, seeing as Jung-Ho Kang is the first position player to ever enter the MLB directly from Korea’s professional league, this is a rare case in which the most refined of projections are still guesses. Unknowns presently rule the day.

At Just a Bit Outside, during the brief period between when Pittsburgh had acquired negotiation rights but had not yet agreed with Kang himself, Rob Neyer had a bunch of questions about Kang’s fit within the Pirates’ line-up. Before the Pirates had acquired negotiation rights, Jeff also had a grip of questions about Kang’s abilities both offensively and defensively. Jeff wrote the following about Kang’s glovework:

At six feet, he’s not oversized, although he’s a little thicker so some people don’t think Kang looks the part. It’s readily obvious he’s not Andrelton Simmons. It sounds like there are enough concerns that Kang probably isn’t an above-average defender, as his range is unremarkable and he sometimes fights the baseball with his glove, but an average shortstop would be a useful shortstop, and it at least seems like Kang deserves an extended opportunity before getting moved to third base or right field. There are fewer questions about his ability in those spots.

While I haven’t the foggiest what Kang’s big-in-Korea bat will look like in the NL Central. And, actually, Jeff’s concerns about Kang’s defense could all come to pass. But I’d like to propose that, at least when it comes to fielding, Kang and the Pirates are a wonderful fit for one another, defensively speaking.

I say this because Neal Huntington and his analytics team have been pulling off a wonderful trick for the last three years: in each season, the Pirates have put together an above-average defensive BABIP despite having a roster full of mostly-below-average defensive players. It’s looked like this:

  BABIP League Average League Rank UZR League Average League Rank
2012 .286 .293 10 0.4 1.2 16
2013 .285 .294 5 4.4 0.6 15
2014 .290 .295 11 -40.3 2.8 27

Pittsburgh’s 2014 numbers were pretty dramatic: one of the very worst defenses in the league, and yet they still backed up their pitching staff with a better-than-average rate on balls in play.

The Pirates set up their defenders to succeed by shifting them often. Using statistics from The Bill James Handbook 2015, the Pirates ranked third in the National League in total shifts in 2013, which they followed up by going way ahead of the pack in 2014*:

2013 Team 2013 Total Defensive Shifts 2014 Team 2014 Total Defensive Shifts
Brewers 544 Pirates 659
Cubs 508 Brewers 576
Pirates 500 Cardinals 367
Reds 298 Giants 361

*It’s useful to separate the two leagues when considering shifting strategies, due to the presence of the designated hitter. DH’s tend to be an extreme power hitters that even very conservative teams will shift against, inflating the total number of AL shifts dramatically. The Pirates’ NL-leading number of 2014 shifts would only have been 6th-most in the AL.

It’s one thing to move your guys around on the field, but of course it would be even better if opponents were hitting balls — that is, ground balls — into the shifts as often as possible. This is where I really dig what Huntington & Co. have been up to. The Pirates have assembled the most ground-ball-dominant pitching staff in the game:

  GB% League Average League Rank
2012 46.6 45.1 6
2013 52.5 44.5 1
2014 50.5 44.8 1

(And, of course, if you were to remove the Pirates’ rates from the league averages, those league averages would be even lower.)

The Pirates have set themselves up for another ground-ball-heavy staff in 2015, mostly by keeping around the same dudes they had in 2014. (Although: your guess is as good as mine as to why they traded for Antonio Bastardo, he of the career 28.2 GB%.) Edinson Volquez (50.4% in 2014) was lost to Kansas City in free agency, but the Pirates replaced him with old pal A.J. Burnett, who was at an astonishing 56.9% and 56.5% during his first stint with the Pirates, from 2012-13. Francisco Liriano (50.5 GB% in 2013; 54.4% in 2014) was brought back on a three-year deal. Jared Hughes (64.6%), Mark Melancon (57.4%), Charlie Morton (55.7%), Jeff Locke (50.5%), Vance Worley (49.4%), and Gerrit Cole (49.2%) all return.

All of these ground balls getting hit into shifts is effectively breaking the Pirates’ relationship with FIP and ERA. Let’s look at all of their player seasons from 2013 and 2014 among Pirates pitchers who (a) pitched over 50 innings, and (b) finished with a GB% over 50 (ordered by GB%):

Player Player Season IP GB% ERA FIP
Jared Hughes 2014 64.1 64.6 1.96 3.99
Charlie Morton 2013 116 62.9 3.26 3.60
Mark Melancon 2013 71 60.3 1.39 1.64
Bryan Morris 2013 65 57.5 3.46 4.89
Mark Melancon 2014 71 57.4 1.90 2.09
A.J. Burnett 2013 191 56.5 3.30 2.80
Charlie Morton 2014 157.1 55.7 3.72 3.72
Jeanmar Gomez 2013 80.2 55.4 3.35 3.85
Francisco Liriano 2014 162.1 54.4 3.38 3.59
Jeff Locke 2013 166.1 53.2 3.52 4.03
Justin Wilson 2013 73.2 53 2.08 3.41
Vin Mazzaro 2013 73.2 52.2 2.81 3.31
Justin Wilson 2014 60 51.3 4.20 3.62
Francisco Liriano 2013 161 50.5 3.02 2.92
Jeff Locke 2014 131.1 50.5 3.91 4.37
Edinson Volquez 2014 192.2 50.4 3.04 4.15

Among these player seasons, the average FIP is 3.49, and the average ERA is 3.01. Relievers and starters, veterans and young guns, the shift helped out all Pirates pitchers who were able to induce enough ground balls.

This is in line with the Pirates out-performing their FIP in both 2013 (3.27 ERA v. 3.42 FIP) and even more so in 2014, as they increased their use of the shift (3.49 ERA v. 3.80 FIP). The Houston Astros led the MLB in total shifts last season with 1,341, more than double the Pirates’ total. But because the Astros were simply above-average in GB% (their 46.4% was seventh-best in MLB), they could not out-perform their FIP: 4.14 ERA v. 3.93 FIP.

The Pirates are not doing this with Andrelton Simmons out there. Looking at the infields they’ve used to get to this place, there aren’t a lot of impressive individual defensive talents. Clint Barmes and Josh Harrison have really set the standard here. So Jung-Ho Kang doesn’t need to be Simmons. If next season goes anything like the last two, the Pirates will induce heaps of outs as a team, instead of relying on fantastic individual performances.

And, in the meantime, there’s the possibility that Kang could have one of the league’s most powerful shortstops’ bats in the game, providing slugging at a spot in the lineup that other teams have basically conceded for defensive purposes. It certainly seems like a valid experiment to try conducting.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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matt w
9 years ago

“in each season, the Pirates have put together an above-average defensive BABIP despite having a roster full of mostly-below-average defensive players”

An alternate explanation is that the metrics by which these players are below average are flawed in this case. Jordy Mercer, for instance, rates much better by DRS and much much better by baseball-ref’s Rtot than by UZR, and Brian Cartwright had him as an excellent fielder throughout the minors; if the other stats are more in line with the Pirates’ BABIP then maybe the other stats are more accurate, at least for the Pirates.

The 2014 numbers seem particularly egregious here.

9 years ago
Reply to  matt w

Last year especially, by the fangraphs metrics, the buccos were a bad pitching team, awful defensively, but good at preventing runs!

Spa City
9 years ago
Reply to  hogan

It is striking how much difference it makes to keep the ball on the ground and position your defenders effectively. The Bucs allow plenty of contact, and their fielders (individually) are not particularly good (looking at you Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez). But they are very effective with defensive shifts and GB%.

I see no reason for this to change in the near-term. In fact, with the strike zone lowering, the Bucs ability to keep the ball down may reward them even more.

9 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

As I understand it, UZR basically throws out PAs where a shift is on, since the UZR model is based on batted-ball location assuming normal defensive positioning.

So on a team that shifts a ton, UZR will definitely be more volatile, though I’m not sure whether there’s a bias up or down on the PAs without a shift.

matt w
9 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

The Pirates do lots of non-standard positioning that doesn’t amount to a shift, though. For instance, I think on their non-shifted plays the middle infielders play closer to second than normal.

matt w
9 years ago
Reply to  hogan

I mean, in this case, there are two alternatives (besides luck): either the Pirates have found a system to beat BABIP with bad fielders, or they’ve found a way to make fielders good without maximizing their UZR. Or a little of both, I guess. If it’s the system making the fielders look good, then they can run Kang out there, but if it’s UZR making good fielders look bad, then they can’t necessarily do so (because he would wind up ranking even worse by UZR than his true talent).

Besides the thing in particular about Mercer’s stats, I think the way UZR is calculated might make it less accurate for teams that do a lot of positioning that doesn’t show up as shifts. It seems to be based on how often an average player fields a ball in a certain zone–but that’s presumably the average fielder with the average positioning, so a fielder standing a different place has a different chance at the ball.

By the eye test the player that the positioning is really helping is Neil Walker; his lateral range seems like it really suffered last year but the ball gets hit to him a lot.

9 years ago
Reply to  matt w

Good point about walker. Even with all of the shifting I still think he should be at first base and alvarez should be traded for a bag of baseballs once hanson is ready or if kang emerges as a viable starting second baseman

9 years ago
Reply to  matt w

I think you can get a lot more than a bag of baseballs even right now when his value’s down. You can get at least a bag of baseballs made of gold.

Cato the Elder
9 years ago
Reply to  matt w

@Hogan, or instead of trading Alvarez at his lowest possible value, you could trade Walker (whose value may be inflated) to a team with a need at 2nd base (who may be willing to pay a premium) and that way maximize the value of your return (instead of minimizing it). Alvarez’s ’12-13 #’s are right in line with Walker’s, so even a modest bounce back from Alvarez and you’d get similar value from the bat, while getting (as you note) a significant difference on the return in a trade.