SURPRISE, Ariz.—More than 40 baseball players dressed in bright, white uniforms go through drills on four fields at the Rangers training complex on a sunny Sunday morning in late January. Just a handful of fans look on, a far cry from the hundreds of observers that cram into the complex during major league spring training.
The players are from one of the best teams in their league—but it’s not the Rangers. The Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization have set up shop in Surprise, one of four KBO teams using Arizona for spring training.
Jung-Ho Kang works primarily by himself on one of the four fields, with one of the Heroes coaches throwing batting practice or hitting grounders to him. He still wears his Nexen Heroes uniform even though he is no longer a member of the organization after seven seasons as one of the team’s stars. He’s coming off his best KBO season in 2014, when the righthanded-hitting shortstop batted .356/.459/.739—that’s not a misprint—with 40 home runs.
Kang isn’t returning for his eighth season with Nexen, having signed a four-year, $11 million contract with the Pirates earlier in January. He’ll report in early February to Bradenton, Fla., to begin working out with his new team. Assuming he breaks camp with the big league club—and the Pirates have assured he will—the 27-year-old Kang will be the first position player to go directly from Korean baseball to the majors.
Kang certainly has the credentials to contribute at the big league level. He was first in the KBO in slugging percentage and OPS, was second in homers and on-base percentage, and won the equivalent of a gold glove at shortstop. But the KBO is known as a hitter’s league, and international scouts are concerned that Kang’s skills won’t translate to the majors.
But Kang is confident that he’ll be able to contribute, and immediately, in Pittsburgh, but knows that he’s got a tough job ahead of him especially with the cultural adjustments. That’s why he arrived in Arizona in January.
“Since it’s the best baseball in the world,” Kang said through interpreter and agent Jae Woong Han, “I’m trying to be ready for everything that I can do before I go to Florida.”
Kang isn’t sure whether the early start will be beneficial, since the KBO season is just 128 games, opposed to the 162-game major league season. He said he’ll see what happens in 2015 and then adjust next season.
He also isn’t concerned about his skill set adjusting to the big leagues. He attributes the extreme hitting environment in Korea not so much to size of the ballparks, but more to the lack of depth of pitching on most teams as well as the weight work done by the players in the KBO. Kang fits the profile of the typical Korean professional with a muscular 6-foot, 180-pound frame.
“It might be the trend of the hitters because they tend to follow the major league players who do a lot of weights and gain a lot of muscle,” Kang said.
Kang has talked to Korean players who preceded him to the big leagues to find out how best to adjust to the majors, notably former pitchers Byung-Hyun Kim and Sun-Woo Kim. He believes the biggest adjustment will not be on the field but rather with the language barrier. He’s been working on his English and said the Pirates plan to make a tutor available to him when he gets to Florida.
As for adjusting to the food, Kang doesn’t see that being a problem at all.
“I eat pretty much everything,” Kang said, “so it doesn’t matter that much.”
While Kang prefers playing shortstop, he said that he’s handled other positions in the past, including third base for South Korea’s national team, and feels that he can be versatile.
“Being a utility man is always an advantage,” Kang said, “but if I can settle into one position it might be a better option.
“But it’s baseball,” he said. “Baseball is baseball. I’m prepared!”