The Premise: Byung-ho Park will be a very good, and potentially great, first baseman/DH as soon as this season.
The Format: A typical line of discourse between a Park believer — such as myself — and a Park-skeptic.
The First Argument: Park comes from a league with little track record of successful MLB transplants — after all, if Eric Thames can be a star, how good can the league be?
The Rebuttal: It is true that the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) has sent very few players to the major leagues. However, consider these caveats before rendering judgement. Unlike in Japan, in which baseball has ruled supreme for decades, the sport has only really taken off in Korea in the last 20 years, spurred largely by the success of Chan-ho Park in Korea and then in the majors. Now, however, the country is baseball-crazy: their national team is among the best in the world and the KBO is by far the most popular professional sports league in Korea. This dramatic rise in interest has led to a correspondingly dramatic rise in baseball infrastructure as more talent is discovered and developed from an early age. The early success of Hyun-jin Ryu and Jung-ho Kang in the United States speaks to the ability of the Korean infrastructure to develop its top-tier talents. Korean national teams regularly beat Americans and others on the international stage. The notion that Korea is not on the same level as a baseball-playing nation as Japan, Cuba, the Dominican Republic et al. is a farce.
The Second Argument: Park strikes out too much to be an effective major-league player.
The Rebuttal: There are two responses to this, one league-oriented and one player-oriented. Implicit in this argument is the notion that the KBO is sufficiently worse than the MLB that all numbers should be significantly adjusted to account for better pitchers in the MLB. While the average KBO pitcher is undeniably worse than the average MLB pitcher, it is worth noting that Cuban League pitching is also decidedly below-average (see this piece by BA’s very talented international correspondent Ben Badler), and Cuban hitters are being snatched up like airline tickets after a decimal point error.
Second, a look at Park’s past seasons reveals an interesting shift in approach. Park’s K% in 2012 and 2013 was 19.8% and 17.2%, respectively, and his slugging percentages were .561 and .602. In 2014, his slugging percentage jumped to .686, but his K% also climbed to 24.8%. Since strikeout rate is a stat which normalizes fairly quickly — 60 PAs, according to FanGraphs — and the overall KBO strikeout rate actually declined from 2013 to 2014 (from 17.3 percent to 16.7 percent), we have to assume that Park changed something in his approach.* My conclusion, given what we know about power hitters striking out more in general, is that Park decided to trade contact for power, much like Mike Trout did before the 2014 season. This is indicative both of Park’s recognition of his strengths as a player, which speaks to his baseball intelligence and ability to learn, and also to his adaptiveness at the plate. If he is striking out too much, I am confident that he can reorient his approach and still be a highly valuable player.
The Caveats: There is, of course, no guarantee that Park will succeed in Minnesota. MLB competition is significantly better than any other league anywhere and there will be a learning curve for Park as he learns to hit MLB pitchers. The steeper hurdle in my mind, however, is culture: American culture is very different from the Korean culture with which he is comfortable. Kang Jung-ho, thanks to no small helping of self-confidence, a good team environment, and a penchant for the dramatic, has thrived in Pittsburgh, but there is no guarantee that Park will adjust as successfully or as quickly.
The Conclusion: These caveats aside, drafting (or signing) Byung-ho Park is a risk worth taking. He will be cheap and the upside is enormous. Acquire Park with confidence; there is a good chance that in the not-so-distant future, both you and the Twins will be the proud owners of one of the best power hitters, and best bargains, in baseball.**
*KBO stats pulled from baseball-reference.com
**Read Dan Farnsworth’s recently published Twins prospect list for further analysis of Park