Outfielder Kyeong Kang was a questionable prospect coming into the 2011 season. But he responded with a great season for Double-A Montgomery and his 2012 season at Triple-A Durham could be even better.
Kang was born in Busan, South Korea but moved to the US to attend high school and was drafted in the 15th round by the Rays in the 2006 MLB Draft. Kang, who is 6’2″, 200, made his professional debut in 2007 at Rookie level Princeton, and he had a nice season, posting a .276/.341/.429 line with 14 doubles, 4 triples, 3 homers, and 22 RBI in 55 games. The one bugaboo was his defense- he was absolutely horrible defensively, posting an .843 Fld% with 8 errors compared to just one outfield assist. The next year, Kang was basically able to repeat his ’07 offensive performance at Short Season-A Hudson Valley, posting a .278/.338/.463 line with 15 doubles, 7 triples, 6 homers, 43 RBI, and 6 stolen bases in 69 games, also improving his Fld% to .974 while playing both corner outfield positions along with a little centerfield. Then 20 years old, Kang had started his professional career with a couple nice seasons at Short Season ball, and he was ready for full season ball as a 21 year old in 2009.
In 2009, Kang was promoted to Low-A Bowling Green and came through with a seemingly breakout season. He posted a great .307/.390/.491 line with 29 doubles, 7 triples, 5 homers, 42 RBI, and 10 stolen bases in 89 games, also posted a .971 Fld% with 6 outfield assists. But there was a key hitch in those numbers. According to Minor League Splits, 46% of his batted balls were groundballs, well above the league average of 22.8%. As a player without much speed, he was lucky to hit for such a high average while hitting such a ridiculous amount of groundballs, and it was also improbable that he managed so many extra-base hits while so many groundballs. He did post a 16.4% line drive percentage compared to the league average of 15.4%, but his .385 BAbip was ludicrous.
Kyeong fell way down to earth as a 22 year old in 2010 after being promoted to High-A Charlotte. He posted just a .241/.328/.315 line with 15 doubles, just 1 homer and 22 RBI in 86 games. He posted a 17.5% line drive percentage compared to the 15.1% league average, but his groundball rate ballooned to 47.5%. And he didn’t even show any value defensively, posting a .962 Fld% and just 3 outfield assists between left field and right field. Kang fell completely off the prospect radar and absolutely nothing was expected of him in 2011.
Instead, Kang put everything together in 2011. Kang started the season at Double-A Montgomery not for his own merits but because he would have not received any playing time had he been sent back to Charlotte because more highly regarded prospects in Ty Morrison, Brett Nommensen, and Anthony Scelfo were being promoted to the level. Kang was expected to struggle mightily at Montgomery because there was absolutely no indication that he was ready to face Double-A. But after hitting just .182 with just 1 double in April, Kang figured something out the rest of the season. On the year, he hit just .263, but he posted a great .384 OBP along with a .437 SLG. He hit 14 doubles and 4 triples, and most impressively he nearly matched his career home run total entering 2011 (15) by hitting 11 home runs. He drove in 39 and also stole 6 bases. His numbers weren’t overall that impressive except for when you compare them to his horrible 2011. But Minor League Central tells us some very interesting things about Kang’s 2011 season.
Kang basically completely inverted his batted ball tendencies, going from primarily a groundball hitter to primarily a flyball hitter as he cut his groundball percentage to 34.2% of his batted balls while raising his flyball percentage to 37.2%, including just 5.1% pop-ups. His mark of 32.1% of his batted balls being flyballs to the outfield was above the 28.6% league average, and that 5.1% mark was better than the league 7.1% infield flyball percentage. But most impressively, Kang smashed line drive after line drive. He posted a staggering 25.6% line drive percentage, well above the league average of 17.5%. Yet Kang’s BAbip was just .324, barely above the league BAbip of .312. Using just his line drive percentage to calculate his projected BAbip based on that, his BAbip should have been a dumbfounding number: .456. Considering the fact that Kang hit just about the league average amount of flyballs (37.2% compared to the league average of 35.7%) and even though his groundball rate was 8.3% lower that the league average, his line drive rate was 8.1% above average, his BAbip really shouldn’t have been too far away from the projected (proportional) BAbip of .456.
And it wasn’t just the line drive percentage that was so impressive. Kang struck out a little bit too much, 22.0% of his plate appearances compared to the league average of 18.7% and made contact not quite at an average level, 74.7% of his swings compared to the 78.3% league average, but his walk rate went from a moderate strength previously as a minor leaguer (9.6% of his plate appearances), to a significant strength as he walked unintentionally in 13.1% of his PA’s compared to the 8.7% league average. He identified pitches to swing at well, swinging at 68.8% of pitches within the zone compared to the league average of 71.5% (and it’s good that it was lower because he showed nice patience in the batter’s box) and swinging at just 10.4% of pitches outside the zone compared to the league average of 11.1%. Kang really improved every facet of his game in 2011, and his defense was no exception as he posted a not great, but better .976 Fld% between right field and left field.
Kyeong Kang is no elite prospect, but if his ridiculous line drive percentage from 2011 was no fluke, he has become a plus pure hitter and he will be the type of hitter that hits for a high average. Kang could have the ability to be a .300/.360/.420 hitter in the big leagues with some power and a little speed while playing at least decent defense. That combination would make him a valuable big league player. Kang really transformed himself as a prospect in 2011, and we’ll have to see if that transformation is real. If Kang has really turned himself around, expect a huge season from him in 2012 at Triple-A Durham.