Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Could 2016 Be A Mirage For Byungho Park?

Heading into the 2016 Major League Baseball season, the Minnesota Twins shocked the sport as they won the bid for Korean Baseball Organization slugger Byungho Park. The most fearsome hitter in the league was headed to a team in Minnesota that was expected to hit a lot of home runs. While his position only complicated things on the Twins roster, his power potential remained certain. As the story has unfolded, the results couldn't be more disheartening. That said, maybe there's more to it?

Prior to the 2016 season, Park was signed by the Twins to a four-year, $12 million contract. Add in the additional money required to negotiate with him, and Minnesota chipped in a healthy sum for the Korean slugger. What they got in return was 62 games at the MLB level with a .191/.275/.409 slash line. Park turned in just 12 homers and had 10 other extra base hits (nine doubles, one triple), with 80 strikeouts and 21 walks.

In watching Park, it was pretty apparent that his swing and miss tendencies from Korea only grew here in the big leagues. Having owned a 161/78 K/BB with Nexen in 2015, the expectation is that he would strike out plenty this season. The understanding though, was that the power would overshadow the negatives.

By the percentages, Park's power showed up quite often when hitting a fly ball. Over one-fifth of the batted balls he launched in the air left the yard. His hard hit percentage wads right at 37% with a swinging strike rate that rested at 15%. A contract percentage of 67.4% leaves something to be desired, but isn't all that uncommon for a home run or bust type hitter.

Putting it in the simplest terms though, a guy that nearly won his 3rd MVP in the last four years for the KBO didn't acclimate well to the big leagues. His back to back 50 home run seasons seemed like a mirage, and the power production that was supposed to dwarf the strikeouts was only visible in short bursts.

What's interesting though, is that Park appears to be alone. Prior to the 2016 season, four Koreans (including Park) were signed to big league deals. Joining the Twins power bat was Dae-ho Lee (Mariners), Seung-hwan Oh (Cardinals), and Hyun Soo Kim (Orioles). The unfortunate reality for Park is that three inferior players to himself, have seen much more success in the early going.

For the Mariners, Lee was the only Korean to sign a deal that included the ability to send him to the minors. He spent just seven games in Tacoma (late in the year), and has batted .261/.323/.445 in 96 games at the big league level. Lee's 14 homers and 49 RBI have been a solid source of run production as well.

Arguably the best season of the Koreans this year has come from Oh of the Cardinals. At 34 years old, he's hardly a typical rookie, but on a one-year $2.5 million deal, he's been an absolute steal. In 70 games (72.1 IP) with St. Louis, he owns a 1.87 ERA and a dazzling 97/18 K/BB ratio. Having moved into the closer role and racking up 17 saves, Oh is going to be in the running for the NL Rookie of the Year award.

Rounding out the group is Kim, who is probably the most interesting story of the bunch. After signing a two-year, $7 million deal with the Orioles, a bad spring training had the club wanting to ship him to Triple-A. Tensions nearly got to the point of an all out release, but cooler heads prevailed. Spending the entirety of the season at the MLB level, Kim has played in 81 games and owns a .308/.389/.421 slash line. He's not the flashy player at the plate, but with 16 doubles to his credit, he's more than carried his weight.

Obviously, the influx of KBO players into baseball follows the emergence of Jung Ho Kang's breakout a year ago. Byungho Park's best friend slashed .287/.355/.461 and launched 15 homers en route to a 3rd place NL Rookie of the Year finish in 2015. He, along with the three aforementioned players, have established that a transition from the KBO to MLB is more than doable.

So, what gives for Park?

At the end of the day, I think that there's probably a bit more about Park's wrist than what he wanted to let on. He underwent surgery in August and effectively ended his first big league season. While he came with mammoth expectations, his power was sapped even further due to his health. Combine that with an adjustment period both on the field and off (the Twins didn't even begin spelling his name as he asked until halfway through the summer), and you end up with less than ideal results.

Going into 2017, there should be heightened expectations that Park is able to come in and contribute. He's likely never going to be the MVP type player he was in Korea, but absolutely should be able to be a vital member of the Twins 25 man roster. Lesser players from the KBO have shown success is attainable in the big leagues, and a healthy wrist could be the key that unlocks the next level for Park.