After a year and three-quarter hiatus, Jung Ho Kang is looking to make a big difference for the Pittsburgh Pirates this upcoming season. This determination could certainly make him a 2019 Comeback Player of the Year candidate. Let’s take a look at his journey thus far.
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) January 28, 2019
A breakout player in 2015, Kang quickly found a home with the Pirates in his rookie season. He appeared in 126 games, starting in 103 of them and cycled between third base and shortstop. The guy was an absolute highlight reel with his defense, from diving stops at third to leaping catches at shortstop. If a ball headed his way, it was never a guaranteed hit.
He also posted a .287 batting average and added some power with 15 home runs, 24 doubles, and a .461 slugging percentage.
Leading the Pirates to their third straight postseason birth, Kang was looking like a clear Rookie of the Year candidate. Then on September 17, while Kang was covering a double play at second in the very first inning, Chicago Cubs right fielder, Chris Coughlin, slid in hard to break up the double play and connected directly with Kang’s left knee.
Kang immediately collapsed to the ground and was down for a while before being helped off by trainers. It was later released that his leg was fractured with a torn MCL, effectively ending his season. He finished in third place for Rookie of the Year voting
In 2016, Kang continued rehab for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians until he was called back up to the Pirates on May 6. He finished out the season with the team with a lower average of .255 but some added pop to his bat as he hit 21 home runs, six more than his rookie season, while playing 23 fewer games.
South Korea Trouble and the Comeback
An offseason of trouble then seemed to mark the end of Jung Ho’s career. During the 2016 season, he was accused of sexually assaulting a girl in Chicago, but charges were never brought forth.
December was his tipping point, as he was involved in a hit-and-run on the first day of the month and was seen fleeing on foot. He was charged with his third DUI, and his visa to return to the US was voided. A hearing in South Korea upheld this ruling, and Jung Ho was not permitted to return to the United States for the 2017 season.
After checking himself into rehab, playing in the Dominican Republic, and waiting, Kang’s visa was finally reinstated in April of 2018. A year and five months after his incident, Kang looked to finally be making progress. The Pirates allowed him to return to the club, on a very short leash and worked his way up through the minor league system for much of the season.
Kang was then a part of the September call-ups and appeared in six games for the Pirates. He only saw six plate appearances but batted .300. He also looked locked in and ready to move on from the past.
The question was, could Kang return to his previous form? On October 31, it appeared to Bucco Nation that the Pirates weren’t going to take that chance. The team declined his option, making him a free agent. However, nine days later, he was a Pirate once again, on a one-year deal.
The Pirates need infield help, and so the promise of Kang being even an image of the player he was when he first got into the league is very promising. Long-time Pirates Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, everyday middle infield starters, both became free agents at the conclusion of the 2018 season. While the Pirates do have the “Kevin’s” (Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer) in the system, a veteran starter with a strong bat could add a lot to a line-up that could use the help.
Despite being looked at as a tanking team last season, the Pirates finished with 82 wins. This included a stretch of 11 straight wins in July, prior to the All-Star break. This team is certainly gritty. Adding someone who was so beloved by the team and city will absolutely help this team. Kang wants to be Comeback Player of the Year. Whether it is by need or want, he will play in 2019, and at a high level. Watch out for number 16 during the 2019 season.