|Jung Ho Kang||54||197||33||61||14||0||11||29||0||2||10||48||.310||.364||.548||.913|
McCutchen's had a big second half, vaulting himself into the MVP discussion. But Kang's been better. He's hit more doubles and more homers in fewer plate appearances. When you combine that with the fact that he plays an adequate shortstop, and McCutchen plays an adequate center field, the defensive importance of shortstop over center field makes Kang, in my book, the team's best player over the second half of the year.
Until yesterday. In the first inning of yesterday afternoon's game against the Cubs, Cub right fielder Chris Coghlan slid hard into Kang, outside of the basepath, in an unsuccessful attempt to break up a double play. What resulted was one of the worst knee injuries in recent memory: torn medial collateral ligament and broken tibial plateau. He won't be playing with the Pirates until next season, probably not until after the season starts.
This is a big blow for the Pirates. As shown above, Kang was the team's best hitter in the second half. OK, let's say he and McCutchen were the two best. With Kang out of the lineup, Jordy Mercer will become the full-time shortstop, backed up by Pedro Florimon. Mercer's .594 OPS this season is the second-worst in the league among the 106 players with at least 350 plate appearances. Mercer was out for a month starting just after the All-Star break, injured by a take-out slide in Milwaukee. He was having a miserable season at the bat up to that point, with a .242 batting average, .289 on base percentage, and .315 slugging percentage at the time of the injury. Since coming back, he's been worse: .239/.289/.304. And that's been way better than Florimon, who in limited play has amassed a single and a triple in 22 at bats (that's a .091 batting average and .182 slugging percentage) and two walks (a .167 on base percentage).
So how big a blow is it? It's easy to overstate the impact of a star player. The Pirates have only 16 games left in the season. Statistically, on paper, Kang would be worth maybe one game over that stretch. That's borne out by the record: The Pirates are 63-40 in games that Kang started, and 24-19 when he didn't. The difference in winning percentage (.612 - .558 = .054), multiplied by 16 remaining games, equals a win. So if the Pirates finish a game behind the Cardinals or Cubs, it won't be a stretch to blame it on Coghlan's slide. Once we get into the postseason, any one-run loss might've been reversed with Kang's booming bat rather than Mercer's, um, less-than-booming one.
As for Coghlan's slide, it seems like it was legal to me. But that doesn't mean I like it. One of the appeals of baseball to me is that it isn't a contact sport. I mean, there's inevitably some contact, like a fielder slapping a tag on a runner attempting to steal, but the game isn't designed to be one of athletes crashing into one another. Sliding into second base on a double play makes sense; if the baserunner doesn't slide, he may catch a baseball on his forehead. If that causes the second baseman or shortstop to miss on his throw to first, all the better. But sliding outside of the basepath, aiming for the fielder, in an attempt to disrupt the throw? I don't see why that should be legal. Baseball made it illegal for catchers to block home plate and for baserunners to crash into the catcher. I'd like to see the same demise for the takeout slide. Baserunners sliding outside of the basepath at the fielder should be ejected, and the attempted double play should be automatically completed.