Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Player Profile: Byung-ho Park

The 2014 Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization possessed a lineup envied by many around the league. Current Pirate shortstop and Rookie Of the Year finalist Jung-ho Kang bashed 40 home tuns, and MVP second baseman Geon-chang Seo batted .370 with 48 stolen bases. But the biggest threat in the lineup still lurked behind the two in the cleanup spot in the order: first baseman, Korean superstar and national sensation, and possible future Minnesota Twin, Byung-ho Park. He hit 52 home runs that year, and followed that up with 53 more in 2015, and he is now preparing for his next task, a transition to the MLB.

Byung-ho Park made his professional debut in 2005 at the age of 18 for the LG Twins in Korea, where he was seen by many as the next big thing. The year before, he led his high school team to a national championship, where he led the tournament in home runs with 10, and at one point hit 4 home runs in 4 consecutive plate appearances. A young hitter with prodigious power, Park was very much welcome on the power-starved team who finished with a disappointing 54-71 record, getting picked in the first round of the annual KBO Amateur Draft. However, at just 18 years old, Park struggled, hitting just .190/.265/.313 with 3 home runs. The LG Twins brought him back in '06, but he fared even worse, hitting a measly .162 before he went on military leave, a requirement for all Korean men of that age. Three years later, he resurfaced with the club, but the time off did not do him any good. In 2009, although he hit 9 home runs, he batted just .218, and did even worse in 2010, hitting an extremely disappointing .188. To the LG Twins, who so excitedly bought into the hype and power of the young slugger, he was beginning to seem like a major disappointment. After yet another disappointing start to the 2011 season, hitting .125 in his first 15 games, the LG Twins decided they had enough. They packaged him and swingman Soo-chang Shim to acquire dominant reliever Sin-young Song from the Nexen Heroes, who provided an immediate impact for the Twins. He pitched to the tune of a 1.99 ERA and became one of the bright spots in another struggle-filled season for LG. But Park and the Nexen Heroes got the last laugh. The change of scenery paid off, as Park fixed whatever problems he had and took off for the Heroes. He batted .265/.357/.535 with 12 home runs in 2011, before establishing himself as one of the premier KBO bats in 2012. He hit 31 home runs in 2012, 37 in '13, winning the league MVP both years in addition to the aforementioned combined 105 home runs in '14 and '15, leading him up to where he stands today, as a national celebrity in Korea and the possibility of coming stateside to the MLB.
This is a compilation of his home runs in his 5 years with Nexen, many of which were absolute moonshots:
At the conclusion of the 2015 KBO season, the Nexen Heroes have posted Byung-ho Park, and the Minnesota Twins put up the winning bid at $12.85 million. Rumor has it that, while not publicly available, his batted-ball exit velocities are right up there with the top talents in the MLB, ranking with the likes of Giancarlo Stanton, Randal Grichuk, and Paul Goldschmidt. His power has been said to be an 80-grade, and while that may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that Park is one of the best power bats available on the open market, as evidenced by this 522 foot bomb (note the scouts reaction).
Of course, Park is not without his faults. Even in the KBO, whose equivalent is likely the Double-A level, he struck out 161 times in 140 games in 2015. His swing is simple with a bat plane that will generate lots of fly balls, leading to lots of home runs, but against more advanced pitching the uppercut may be exposed. The load in his swing is slightly unorthodox compared to most Americans, but his main components such as his weight transfer, hip rotation, and hands all look reasonably solid. As a first baseman, he is a solid defender with surprising athleticism and is not your typical lumbering, mashing first baseman. He has a 20 stolen base season under his belt and did take 10 bags this year compared to just 3 times caught stealing. However, unlike fellow country-mate Jung-Ho Kang, he will not have the same leash that some other players may have as he does not play a premium position like shortstop. His value is solely tied to his bat and power at first base, but expect him to produce. A good big league comparison would be Mike Napoli, another power right handed bat who plays decent defense at first. (Napoli, by the way, was a Gold Glove finalist at first base. While he likely isn't that good defensively, he certainly is no slouch with the glove.) If Minnesota gets the deal done, expect Park to hit around .235/.310/.440 with 25 home runs in his first big league year and being a contributor to an offensively sound Twins ball club. 

Here is a bonus video of Park hitting a 475 foot moonshot over the batter's eye to his own catchy theme song:

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