Disappointing rookie season cut short by August wrist surgery
By Travis Sawchik
Special to MLB.com |
Many of the relatively well-known imported bats from foreign pro leagues have adapted quickly and proficiently to Major League pitching in recent years, and that's why the Twins were so optimistic about Byungho Park in 2016.
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 back to Park, who came advertised with 80-grade power, according to some evalutors. 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. He struck out in 30.1 percent of his plate appearances in April (73 plate appearances), struck out 32.6 percent of the time in May (95), and at a 35.5 percent 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 wrist surgery. At the time, he explained how long it had been an issue:
"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 contact and/or timing issues.
When observing him in the KBO, scouts saw holes in Park's swing. The Davenport Translations, which attempt to convert foreign stats into MLB expectations, 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.
He saw fastballs 54 percent of the time last season and his weighted-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, I don't want to quit Park just yet.
Every time I look up an interesting power-based #statcast number, Byung-ho Park appears. I know he hit like .190, but I'm not out on him 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. For example, look where he ranks in terms of barrels (a metric that combines exit velocity and launch angle to find the best possible batted balls) per plate appearance. It's a who's-who of top sluggers.
He also appears in the Top 10 of highest exit velocity on flies and liners, a good proxy for power hitters.
Average Exit Velocity on Flies and Line Drives, 2016
99.2 mph -- Cruz, SEA
98.9 mph -- Pham, STL
98.7 mph -- Pedro Alvarez, BAL
98.2 mph -- Franklin Gutierrez, SEA
98.0 mph -- Davis, OAK
97.8 mph -- Sanchez, NYY / Josh Donaldson, TOR
97.4 mph -- Stanton, MIA
97.3 mph -- David Ortiz, BOS
97.2 mph -- Park, MIN (minimum 75 batted balls)
But going forward, 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 affect him last season?
Can Park make a Kris Bryant-like adjustment? Bryant reduced his strikeout rate from 30.6 percent as a rookie to 22 percent last season. Can Park make a Paul Goldschmidt-like adjustment? Goldschmidt, who arrived at the Major League level with contract-rate concerns, reduced his strikeout rate from 29.9 percent in a 177 plate appearances as a rookie to a 22.1 percent 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 who follow. Perhaps Park will be much more comfortable, and healthy, in his second year in the States.
Said Twins manager Paul Molitor to 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 version of this article first appeared at FanGraphs.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.