Don’t Quit on Byung Ho Park

Many of the relatively well known — and relatively expensive — imported bats from foreign pro leagues have adapted quickly and proficiently to major-league pitching in recent years.

We’re familiar with what Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu have accomplished. Jung Ho Kang, when he’s on the field, has silenced questions about his ability to hit velocity. Dae-Ho Lee arrived with more modest expectations but was still a league-average bat (102 wRC+) last year in his first year in the majors, and Hyun Soo Kim posted a .382 on-base mark and 119 wRC+ in his first season in transitioning from the KBO to the majors.

Which brings us to Byung-ho Park. Park came advertised with 80-grade power, according to some evalutors, and he demonstrated last year that the power was very, very real.

Of course, Park didn’t display that power very often, because he didn’t make contact often enough.

Park struck out a lot.

He struck out in 30.1% of his plate appearances in April (73 plate appearances), struck out 32.6% of the time in May (95), and at a 35.5% clip in June (76). He was trending in the wrong direction. His wRC+ fell from 119 in April, to 84 in May, to 37 in June. His struggles became so severe that he was dispatched to Triple-A Rochester in July, where he slugged 10 home runs in 31 games but also hit .224.

His season ended in August when Park had season-ending wrist surgery. Said Park to the Star-Tribune and other reporters:

“It’s been bothering me, not seriously, but the pain’s been there from time to time,” Park said through interpreter J.D. Kim. “After I got sent down to Rochester, the pain got a little worse and I thought it was time to get it checked out.”

I suspect the Twins would like to believe the wrist discomfort explains much of his contract and/or timing issues.

When observing him in the KBO, scouts saw holes in Park’s swing. The Davenport Translations thought his 2015 KBO performance would convert to 153 strikeouts in nearly a full season of major-league play, along with an .837 OPS. There was enough doubt to explain why Park’s rights were won for a significant, if not astronomical, posting fee of $12.8 million. Park later signed a four-year, $12 million deal with the Twins.

There’s some really ugly stuff with regard to the contact issues.

If he qualified, his 15% swinging-strike rate would have tied Park for the seventh-worst mark in the majors in the same neighborhood as Chris Carter and Melvin Upton Jr.

He saw fastballs 54% of the time last season and his weight-runs mark (-5) on that pitch type would have placed him as the 16th-worst fastball hitter in the league had he qualified. If Park is going to struggle against major-league fastballs, if he’s going to have to cheat to catch up to them, then there are some deep-rooted concerns. All his value is tied to his bat — at a time when teams are not valuing bat-only players.

But like Mike Petriello I don’t want to quit Park just yet. If you examine the Statcast leaderboards, you will notice Park among impressive company when it comes to quality of contact (barrels per batted ball) and the force with which he drives line drives and fly balls.

When Park makes contact, he hits the ball really hard. See last season’s results here:

Barreled Balls
Rank Player Batted balls tracked Barrels/Batted ball %
1 Gary Sanchez 128 18.8
2 Byung-ho Park 123 18.7
3 Khris Davis 357 18.2
4 Nelson Cruz 381 17.8
5 Chris Carter 315 17.8
6 Mark Trumbo 386 17.4
7 Tommy Pham 81 17.3
8 Giancarlo Stanton 248 17.3
9 Chris Davis 313 16.9
10 Miguel Cabrera 437 16.5
SOURCE: Statcast via Baseball Savant
Min. 75 batted-ball events in 2016

And here:

Avg. Exit Velocity of Fly Balls and Line Drives
Rank Player Batted balls Avg. FB/LD exit velo (mph)
1 Nelson Cruz 381 99.2
2 Tommy Pham 81 98.9
3 Pedro Alvarez 208 98.7
4 Franklin Gutierrez 148 98.2
5 Khris Davis 357 98.0
6 Gary Sanchez 128 97.8
7 Josh Donaldson 408 97.8
8 Giancarlo Stanton 248 97.4
9 David Ortiz 393 97.3
10 Byung-ho Park 123 97.2
SOURCE: Statcast via Baseball Savant
Min. 75 batted-ball events in 2016

How often is Park’s barrel going to find fastballs? Is he going to be able to make adjustments? And how much did the wrist effect him last season?

Can Park make a Kris Bryant-like adjustment? Bryant reduced his strikeout rate from 30.6% as a rookie to 22% last season. Can Park make a Paul Goldschmidt-like adjustment? Goldschimdt, who arrived at the major-league level with contract-rate concerns, reduced his strikeout rate from 29.9% in a 177 plate appearances as a rookie to a 22.1% rate in his second year, which is in line with his career average.

To not only learn a new league but a new culture in transitioning when traveling from a foreign pro league to the majors is a lot to expect of a player. Perhaps Kang, Cespedes and Abreu have created unfair expectations in trailblazing the path for those that follow. Perhaps Park will be much more comfortable, and healthy, in his second year in the States.

SaidTwins manager Paul Molitor to Mike Beradino of the Pioneer Press:

“There’s people that are weighing in that have seen him more than others that expect the second time around to be significantly different as far as expectations and the pressure he puts on himself and those type of things. I’m glad he’s healthy. That’s the main thing, and we’ll see how he comes in the second time around.”

There’s no doubt Park needs to make adjustments in his second time around to be more than a fringe roster piece who puts on a show in batting practice. But if he can make an adjustment, if he can simply get his barrel to more pitches, then some special things could happen. The underlying power traits are there and they are real. I’m betting that Park can make some level of adjustments, and even some modest improvements to timing, perhaps swing length or pitch recognition (perhaps to also boost walk rate) could be significant.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Agree there is still promise there, but I’m just not sure how many opportunities he’ll get with Mauer and Vargas in the way. Are they going to carry two DHs? Vargas has been better as RH so it’s not an obvious platooon. I think Vargas might develop into a decent hitter too, but I’m not sure there’s room for both of them in the majors. For some reason, the Twins got a 4th year option on Vargas. One of the two will head to the minors to start the year I would guess.