Buried in the LG Twins’ Lineup, a Korean Baseball Great

On the mound is Ricardo Pinto. He’s 26 years old. At 6-feet and 195 pounds, he has a muscular build that immediately makes him look like an athlete. He’s struggling through this particular appearance, thanks to command issues and some iffy defense behind him, but he hasn’t really been hit hard. His low-to-mid 90s heat is on the faster side of what Korean Baseball Organization hitters typically see, and he leans on it heavily.

At the plate, with the bases loaded and two outs, is Yong Taik Park 박용택. He’s 41 years old. He wears glasses in the batter’s box. As he awaits each pitch, he stands with his front foot resting nearly on the edge of the box behind him. At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, he doesn’t differ dramatically from Pinto in size, but his baggier uniform makes him look tall and thin.

Pinto begins his violent delivery, and Park brings his front foot square with the plate. As the ball approaches, he twitches it slightly, perhaps as a way to subtly maintain his timing. Finally, at the last moment, his bat explodes through the baseball as Park uncorks his whole body to turn on a pitch high and tight. It’s a gorgeous left-handed swing, and it produces a bases-clearing double.

That was the 2,445th career hit for Park, the most of any player in KBO history. Over the last 19 seasons, no player has logged more games played, plate appearances, at-bats, singles, doubles, runs scored, or strikeouts. He’s played all of those 19 seasons for the LG Twins, and he’s said that 2020 will be his final one. With North American sports closed for the foreseeable future, now is a good time to catch up on an important part of Korean baseball history before it’s gone.

Park was born in Seoul in 1978, three years before the LG Twins (known as MBC Chungyong until 1989) and five other founding members of the KBO were established. While in high school, he played for South Korea in the World Junior Baseball Championship in Cuba. In 1999, while Park was in college, he played for the national team in the Intercontinental Cup in Australia, and in 2001, he competed in the Asian Baseball Championship in Taiwan, earning All-Star honors as an outfielder.

The following year, Park began his KBO career. Fortunately for us, his first year in the league coincides with the first year for which we have KBO data at FanGraphs, allowing us to better contextualize his career. He played well as a rookie, hitting .288/.359/.467, but his strikeout rate of 25.7% was fourth-highest in a league in which better contact numbers are expected. Park improved that figure by more than 10% in his second season, but his overall numbers regressed heavily, with his wRC+ falling from 121 to 85.

That was the last time Park was a below-average hitter over the course of a full season.

Part of what the KBO is known for is the gaudy hitting seasons its offensive environment has produced over the years. By now, everyone knows about the way Eric Thames 테임즈 laid waste to the league in his 40-40 season, or the slugging heroics of ByungHo Park 박병호, who hit 105 homers combined from 2014-15. Before the KBO dejuiced its baseball in 2019, more than a dozen hitters were easily clearing a .330 batting average every year, often while walking a good bit, hitting for serious power, or both.

Park’s numbers have rarely been eye-popping by comparison — instead, he’s accumulated his historic totals through impressive durability and consistency. He’s played in at least 80% of his team’s games in 16 of his last 18 seasons, has played in more than 90% of them 10 times, and has played every game four times. Simply being able to stay on the field is an important skill, and it’s allowed Park to build an impressive resume despite rarely having numbers that would place him at the very top of many single-season leaderboards.

But that isn’t to say he hasn’t stood out at various times as well. He led the KBO in stolen bases in 2005, with a career-high of 43. He also won the batting title in 2009, in a year that will likely go down as the best of his career. That season, he hit .372/.417/.582, setting a new career high in homers (18), ISO (.210), and wRC+ (153), the last of which ranked him fifth in the league.

That was the first of what turned out to be 10 straight seasons during which Park hit .300 or better, with the veteran enjoying some of his best seasons as he reached his mid-30s. From 2012-17 — Park’s age-33 to 38 seasons — he hit .332/.399/.465 with a 126 wRC+, the last of which was good for 12th-best in the KBO among all players with at least 2,000 PAs during that stretch. In 2018, he officially claimed the title of all-time KBO hit king.

Age finally caught up with Park last year, limiting him to just 64 games. After seven games this season, he owns a career batting line of .308/.371/.452, with a 118 wRC+. He’s sixth in KBO history in career stolen bases (312), and ranks 22nd in career homers (211).

I’ve given you a lot of numbers now, but you still may be wondering exactly what you’re supposed to think of this guy. Is he the greatest KBO player ever? Is he overrated or underrated by most KBO fans, depending on which statistics and aesthetics they prioritize? Are there any major leaguers we could compare him to?

The first question is easy enough to answer — Park is not the greatest player in KBO history. Even if you raise the plate appearance threshold to 4,000 to weed out the Eric Thames who appeared for just a couple seasons, and look at only the 19 seasons for which we have data on this site, Park still ranks just 22nd in career wRC+. Those years don’t include other all-time greats like Seung-yeop Lee 이승엽 — who won five MVPs between 1997 and 2003 — three-time MVP winner Dong-yol Sun, or two-time MVP winner Jong-hoon Chang 장종훈.

No, Park isn’t the KBO’s all-time greatest player, but that doesn’t mean his long list of accomplishments don’t make him a significant part of Korean baseball history. To try to give more context to Park’s career, let’s try to find an MLB equivalent. For now, we’ll toss aside counting stats, since the KBO season is so much shorter. Instead, I tried to find a list of every player in MLB history who had at least 5,000 plate appearances, a batting average between .300-.320, and a slugging percentage between .430-.470. That gives us a preliminary list of 13 names.

Yong Taik Park MLB Comps
Derek Jeter 12,602 .310 .377 .440 260 8.6% 14.6% 358 119
Paul Molitor 12,167 .300 .369 .448 234 9.0% 10.2% 504 122
Roberto Alomar 10,400 .300 .371 .443 210 9.9% 11.0% 474 118
Al Oliver 9,778 .303 .344 .451 219 5.5% 7.7% 84 120
Mark Grace 9,290 .303 .383 .442 173 11.6% 6.9% 70 120
Michael Young 8,612 .300 .346 .441 185 6.7% 14.3% 90 104
Joe Mauer 7,960 .306 .388 .439 143 11.8% 13.0% 52 123
Bill Madlock 7,372 .305 .365 .442 163 8.2% 6.9% 174 121
Carl Furillo 7,022 .299 .355 .458 192 7.3% 6.2% 48 113
Sean Casey 5,644 .302 .367 .447 130 8.5% 10.2% 18 109
José Altuve 5,458 .315 .364 .463 128 6.6% 11.4% 254 127
Mike Greenwell 5,166 .303 .368 .463 130 8.9% 7.0% 80 120
Buster Posey 5,153 .302 .370 .456 140 9.4% 12.3% 23 128

Right away, this is a pretty good list. There are a few Hall of Famers on here, along with a couple of others who haven’t been on the ballot yet but could get in someday. None of these guys had an unenviable career.

From here, we can do some trimming. Park’s career walk rate is 8.8%, which means anyone below 7% or above 10% can probably get pitched out. That takes away Mark Grace, Al Oliver, Michael Young, Joe Mauer, and José Altuve. Park’s strikeout rate is also close to double his walk rate, which means guys like Bill Madlock, Carl Furillo and Mike Greenwell — the guys with more walks than strikeouts — can get crossed out too. And since he’s one of the KBO’s all-time leading base stealers, that means that Sean Casey and Buster Posey probably wouldn’t quite fit the bill here either.

After expanding our qualifications to plate discipline and stolen base numbers, we’ve narrowed the list to three players to compare to Park, and they’re all Hall of Famers.

Yong Taik Park MLB Comps, Part 2
Yong Taik Park 8,931 .308 .371 .452 211 8.8% 15.3% 312 118
Derek Jeter 12,602 .310 .377 .440 260 8.6% 14.6% 358 119
Paul Molitor 12,167 .300 .369 .448 234 9.0% 10.2% 504 122
Roberto Alomar 10,400 .300 .371 .443 210 9.9% 11.0% 474 118

These three are close enough to Park that you could probably be reasonably satisfied with any comparison. There are ways we can narrow it down further, though. One thing we haven’t discussed yet is Park’s defense. Though he’s a DH now, he used to be lauded as one of the better outfield defenders in the KBO, enough that he won three Gold Gloves from 2009-13. Gold Gloves aren’t necessarily proof of anything besides him passing the eye test, but because we don’t have defensive metrics from the KBO, we’re going to need to take those as sufficient evidence that he was at least an above-average defender. And if we do that, we can probably cross out Paul Molitor, who rarely stood out on defense and was mainly used as a DH for the final eight years of his career.

That brings us to two. Using Roberto Alomar as a comparison makes a lot of sense — his OBP, home run total, and wRC+ line up with Park’s exactly, and he was an above average defender for his career (even if modern defensive metrics think he wasn’t quite 10-Gold-Gloves good). But this is crunch time, and we need to get picky. Alomar struck out a good deal less than Park, and stole a lot more bases. More important of a distinction, however, is how much moving around Alomar did throughout his career. He played for seven different teams, never staying for more than five years at a time. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but for the purposes of this exercise, the MLB equivalent to Park should probably be someone who stayed in one place.

Which brings us to Derek Jeter. Moving across his statline, there is no area in which he differs appreciably from Park. He hit a few more homers and stole a few more bases, but the difference in plate appearance is enough to write those things off. Jeter was also durable and consistent, always looking like one of the game’s best players but rarely ever the best, and also happened to play through a major offensive boom in his league.

Is he a perfect comparison? Maybe not. Jeter played on one of the great dynasties in baseball history, winning five championships. Park, meanwhile, has spent his entire career playing for a team that once went 10 straight seasons without a playoff appearance, and hasn’t been to the Korean Series since Park’s rookie year, when they lost to the Samsung Lions. He spoke recently about how he hopes to finally win a title in his last season, saying, “I may be dreaming, but I want to hit the winner during the seventh game of the Korean Series, while the count is two outs at the bottom of the ninth.” Jeter was also a mythical figure in American sports culture, and because I’m as new to the KBO as many of you are, I can’t speak to whether Park has the same iconic, polarizing presence among Korean baseball fans.

Statistically, though, it’s the best comparison I could make. It also reminds me of the fact that these players whose names and faces we’re doing our best to memorize during a 5 AM live broadcast mean a great deal to the people watching in South Korea. I think of the fans cheering themselves hoarse in the video above, euphoric that they got to witness a favorite player make history. I think of the diehard LG Twins fans who showed up for two decades of losses to see Park, and how many games they were ready to show up for this year, knowing it was their last chance to see him play. Now, they have no option but to watch at home, on their TVs and laptops and phones, picturing themselves in the empty seats, watching another opportunity to send him off melt away, inning by inning. They must feel as far away as I do.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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I was watching a Twins game while scrolling through the lineups when I saw Yong Taik Park and his listed age of 41 years. That was notable by itself, which led me to look into him more and discover his vaunted place in the KBO record books. It’s one of those moments that give you a sense of how little context you have for the league and it’s history, and while that hampers your enjoyment there is a definite thrill in learning about a player like Yong Taik Park. You don’t usually have the opportunity to just stumble across a living legend while watching a baseball game.