Byung-ho Park Can Hit the (Snot) Out of the Ball by Jeff Sullivan November 9, 2015 A few days ago, it was reported Miguel Sano would play some outfield during winterball. That’s easy enough to evaluate in isolation — there’s nothing wrong with trying to increase flexibility, and Sano is a bit young to permanently stuff into the DH box. But that’s also easy to interpret as part of a larger process. Word’s out the Twins placed the high bid to negotiate with South Korean first baseman Byung-ho Park. The winning bid of $12.85 million is more than double the winning bid a year ago for Jung-ho Kang, and it’s more than the total value of the four-year contract Kang later signed. It’s pretty clear now that Kang opened some eyes, and though the Twins and Park will still need to reach an agreement, you assume something will get done. The Twins are among baseball’s Byung-ho Park believers. The question following any transaction is always, is it good? Is it worth it? That can be hard enough to answer when we have a ton of information. It’s far more difficult here. Park, obviously, has no major-league experience, no American track record to examine. We don’t know what the terms of his contract are going to be. We don’t even know that much about the market, or about how the Twins evaluated all their options. I don’t know if this is going to be “worth it,” to the dollar. What I do know is it’ll be good to see what Park can accomplish at the highest level. He’s earned this opportunity, and he’s earned it by demonstrating that he can hit the living crap out of a baseball. For the most part, we’re stuck with highlight videos. There are writers who pay a lot of attention to Korean baseball, but I’m not one of them, so I can’t lean on my own game-to-game observations. Following is an excellent highlight reel, brought to my attention by Dan of MyKBO. Click around, have some fun. Immediately, we know this is misleading, for analytical purposes. This is a reel of only home runs, and you can make any hitter look amazing if you only include his home runs. Home runs tend to happen when you do everything perfectly, so we don’t really get to see Park screw up. A video like this makes you more optimistic. It’s like trying to evaluate a student by only considering the test answers he or she got correct. You can, at least, see the good signs. One good sign, right away: it’s 45 minutes of home-run footage, for one player. Park has done this a lot. Which means Park has executed perfectly a lot. The difference between a good hitter and a bad one is in the ratio between good execution and bad execution. In the video, you see power to all fields, with several bombs to dead center. This isn’t a guy who’s hit many wall-scrapers. The power certainly appears to be legit, and there are homers in there against pitches north of 90 miles per hour. There are so many homers to choose from, but just to pull two out individually — I was struck by how far Park hit this baseball with such a quick swing, tucking his hands in: Meanwhile, Park can also just lean on a ball: …leading to the following screenshot: The offensive environment in the KBO is quite a bit higher than it is in the majors. The overall level of talent is inferior, on the mound and at the plate. It’s still baseball, though, with a ball and with familiar-looking field dimensions, and there’s no faking Park’s strength. Those are moonshots, all over the place, so it’s less a question of whether Park has power, and more a question of how it’ll translate to a league with higher velocity. Consider: One team that pursued Byung-Ho Park checked his exit velocities, HR distances and other measures and decided that he could succeed in MLB. — Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) November 9, 2015 Scout who saw Park and Kang in Korea says 70 power for Park (55 for Kang). But defensive profile limited (55 at 1B, 40 in LF). #MNTwins — Anthony Castrovince (@castrovince) November 9, 2015 To stick with a few images, here’s Park going up to catch a pitch, showing he’s not just a low-ball hitter: Here’s Park drilling a fastball away, a fastball thrown over 90: And now I think this is a worthwhile shot because, look at Park’s bat. Look at its angle. This is evident in basically all of the home runs in the video above, but this is just the screenshot I took: You see the steep angle? Another way a home run highlight reel misleads is everything you see is a fly ball, but it certainly appears that Park has a fly-ball swing. Hitters with level swings tend to hit level-swing home runs. Park hits fly-ball-swing home runs, striking everything with an elevated bat path, and while I don’t have detailed Korean statistics, it wouldn’t shock me to see Park as a fairly extreme fly-ball hitter stateside. I’m expecting a groundball rate below 40%. And Park has the power to hit the ball out anywhere. We just need to see him against better competition. To supplement the highlight reel, we’ve got Park’s full-season statistics. The highlights don’t show, say, how Park might make mid-game adjustments. The numbers show what he’s been, in sum. In this table, I’m showing Park’s last three years in the KBO. Instead of showing the raw statistics, I’m showing Park’s league ranks, out of the top 100 players in season plate appearances. Byung-ho Park Statistical Ranks In KBO Season OPS ISO BB% K% 2013 1 1 1 41 2014 2 1 3 4 2015 2 2 19 7 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference Overall, Park has been a top-two hitter. Relatedly, he’s been a top-two power hitter. He has a history of walking, though that just went down a bit. His strikeouts spiked between 2013 and 2014, but that didn’t hurt his overall performance. The only player with a better OPS two years ago was Kang. The only player with a better OPS last year was Eric Thames. This is why there’s so much uncertainty — Kang’s coming off a 130 wRC+, but in the majors, Thames’ was 96. And this is why there was even more uncertainty last year — last year, we didn’t have the Jung-ho Kang data point. Now we’ve seen Kang succeed. Now we’ve seen Kang hit for power. Relative to 2014, his walks were cut in half, but Kang didn’t see an increase in strikeout rate. He was, simply, a good hitter, and he hit .440 against pitches at 95+, so it’s not like good velocity reduced him to dust. Park has those same questions, and Park’s ability isn’t necessarily linked to Kang’s, but this tends to be the default critique. It’s unlikely Park just won’t be able to catch up to 96. And no one gets better against the best of the best. Park deserves this chance. He’s dominated his own level, meaning he’s due for a promotion. Maybe the Eric Thames takeaway ought to be that Eric Thames deserves another chance, too. I don’t know, but we can see Park’s skills. He comes with big-league-caliber right-handed power, and teams have uses for that. Teams pay a lot of money for that. One thing Kang had going for him was he was a middle infielder. So he had a lower offensive bar to clear, while Park is a first baseman, presumably. There are positive reports about Park’s first-base defense, but others figure he’s in the vicinity of average. Kang didn’t need to hit that much to justify a role. Park’s going to need to hit. First basemen need to hit. Significant righty power? Fly balls? Strikeout proneness? Mark Reynolds comes to mind. Mike Napoli comes to mind. Chris Carter comes to mind. They have career wRC+ marks of 105, 125, and 111, respectively, and mostly they’ve been particularly strikeout-prone. Reynolds and Carter have struck out more than 30% of the time. Napoli has struck out just 27% of the time but has a couple years at 30%+. If Park hits for power, he can be an above-average hitter even with a lot of whiffs in his game. And if he keeps his strikeouts under control, then you’re looking at All-Star upside. You figure, if the power is there, that’ll lead to the walks. Just a matter of making enough good contact. We all get to see how it goes. Assuming a contract, anyway. Jung-ho Kang was arguably the best all-around player in the KBO, and because the Pirates were willing to take a chance, now they have an unbelievable bargain. After Kang left, Byung-ho Park remained as arguably the best hitter in the KBO, and he’s about to get his own shot. There’s no way to know yet if it’s going to work, but the progress is in his even getting an opportunity. He dominated his own league. It would be arrogant to think he couldn’t be good in this one.