By Zach Bernard
As Kansas City cleans up its streets following the Royals’ World Series parade, the stove around Major League baseball is beginning to heat up. Rumors about the Yankees being front-runners for Jason Heyward and the Cubs showing interest in bringing back Jeff Samardzija have already begun swirling intensely, but as any baseball fan knows, rumors this time of year are just that.
One of the more obscure names to enter the 2015/16 hot stove rumor mill is Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) slugger Byung-Ho Park. While Park may not be a familiar name to the American baseball audience, he has been a big name on the foreign baseball circuit. He was recently posted by his KBO team the Nexen Heroes, and the Minnesota Twins won negotiation rights with a $12.85 million bid.
A few players from foreign leagues always seem to pop up around this time of the year, sweetening the pool of available free agents even if just for their brief posting period. So who is this guy the Twins just bid on?
Byung-Ho Park was born on July 10, 1986 and will turn 30 halfway through the 2016 season. He’s a right-handed first baseman standing at 6’1” and weighing in at 195 pounds. With Park, the Twins could be signing a player either in the middle or nearing the end of his peak.
Park is best known as a prodigious power hitter that hits an extraordinary amount of home runs and drives in a significant number of men. He hit 52 home runs in 2014 and 53 last season, while driving in 124 and 146 runs during those respective campaigns. He even swiped a combined 18 bases during those two years, making him a well-rounded offensive force for the Heroes. Last season alone, Park collected an astounding 377 total bases in 528 at bats. He posted a triple slash of .343/.436/.714, which is impressive regardless of which league you play in, and his 2015 season establishes him as one of the world’s premier hitters.
The thing is, he’s always been very good; over nine seasons, he has batted a career .281/.387/.564 with 210 home runs and 773 hits. His power surge began in 2012 when he played his first full season in the KBO and smoked 31 homers and built up a fine .561 slugging percentage in 133 games. Since then, his home run and most other offensive totals have gradually increased.
Of course, every superstar has pitfalls in his game, and Park is no different. Last season, he collected a massive 161 strikeouts, the third time in his four full KBO seasons he passed the one-hundred mark (he struck out 96 times in 2013, so he was close). He counters this with high walk totals, which combined with his 53 home runs and 181 total hits allows him to maintain a superb on-base percentage of .436.
Minnesota’s interest in him is intriguing, because their lineup would pack a serious punch if they manage to sign him to a deal. The Twins had eight guys with 10 or more home runs in 2015, and adding Park next to the likes of Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and Brian Dozier gives the Twins a legitimately frightening lineup.
The question for Park is how well his power and other numbers will translate from the KBO to MLB. And in order to determine the transitional trend between leagues, we have a very recent, modern case study to evaluate what we could expect: Pittsburgh’s Jung Ho Kang.
Kang was Park’s teammate for the Nexen Heroes dating back to Park’s arrival to the team in 2011. In 2014 specifically, Kang and Park combined for an extraordinary display of middle-order power; while Park set his (then) career high with 52 home runs, Kang did the same by smacking 40 of his own while driving in 117 runs. Kang hit .356/.495/.739 in 2014 in what one could call a consistent inflation of his career numbers; he produced in a manner consistent with his career trends, just in a much grander fashion.
Jung Ho Kang’s 2014 season made him an attractive player for any team looking for a utility infielder that can also serve as an X-factor, and that’s what the Pirates got from him. In 126 games with Pittsburgh last season, Kang hit 15 home runs and stepped up as the Pirates’ main utility guy before a gruesome leg injury ended his season prematurely. He found a rhythm at the big league level and was huge in Pittsburgh’s 2015 regular season success.
Kang was mediocre in the first half of the season but broke out in the second, hitting 11 of his 15 home runs and posting a .310/.364/.548 slash across 214 plate appearances. While the sample size of these numbers is relatively small (54 games), Kang’s power numbers improved dramatically and he proved, if nothing else, he can get on base consistently against big league pitching.
He excelled in Pittsburgh’s lineup, and his regular season slash of .287/.355/.461 is a respectable comparison to his career .298/.383/.504 from the KBO, notably in the slugging department. His 28 walks last season was dramatically lower than his career average (around 60-70 each season), while his strikeout totals increased but not by much.
The sample size may be too small to determine a trend, but if we so choose to use these metrics as a means of predicting what Byung-Ho Park will bring the Minnesota Twins. One could fairly imagine, in a full 162-game season (which I doubt he’ll play), the strikeout total will increase to about 190 or maybe even 200, and his patience would bring the walks down to a still-respectable 60-70. On the power front, don’t expect 50 home run seasons, but he could very well deliver 20-25 across a full schedule. The increase in strikeouts and decrease in walks would bring his slash to around .265/.350/.500, but these are just projections.
It should be noted that the Twins merely won the bid on Park’s posting and have not yet signed him, but one can assume they’re serious with the $12.85 million bid from what’s considered a small-market baseball team. Park’s power numbers would effectively replace the newly-retired Torii Hunter and provide a fresh spark to a Twins lineup that far exceeded expectations in 2015. If Minnesota can sign Park and show some reliability on the mound, they could become a force.
We’ll see what the Twins decide to do, but there’s no doubt they’re looking at Park as their “X-factor” in the way Pittsburgh did with Jung-Ho Kang one year ago. Wherever Park ends up, it won’t be long before fans can start thinking of fun home run puns with the word “Park” for signs and banners.