With the 2015-16 MLB off-season technically underway but relatively quiet apart from the Rays-Mariners deal last week, much of the buzz over the weekend belonged to 29 year-old Korean first baseman Byung-Ho Park after it was announced that his current KBO team had accepted a $12.85 million bid from the Minnesota Twins.. What this means is that the Twins will gain exclusive rights to negotiate with Park on a contract, a kind of exclusive free agency.
There haven’t been all that many Korean players to make the move to MLB, but there has been a respectable level of success so far from the likes of Shin-Soo Choo, pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu and, most recently, Jung-Ho Kang who came over last season and found success with the Pirates. So, I want to take quick look at Kang’s 2015 campaign, both to analyze it for it’s own merits, and to see if we can get an idea of what to expect from Park in 2016.
First, though, we should look back at his performance in the Korean league, where he spent nine seasons. He managed an overall line of .298/.383/.504/.887, but bumped that way up in his final season there, slashing .356/.459/.739/1.198 with 40 home runs. In comparison, Park holds a career slash line of .281/.387/.564/.951, with his 2015 line sitting all the way up at .343/.436/.714/1.150 with 53 homers.
As would be expected, Kang’s numbers were nowhere near as gaudy in his American debut, but he still managed to be a well above average hitter with a .287/.355/.461/.816 line. While this would, in general, make us fairly optimistic about Park, seeing as he has been a pretty similar hitter as Kang, there could be some concerns. While OBP and SLG are more important than batting average, Kang’s advantage there could suggest he has better general contact skills, despite having less pop and a worse eye. I am certainly no scout, and don’t have a ton of evidence to back this up, but it seems somewhat intuitive that a better “hit tool” may help a player transition to a better league.
Consider the fact that Kang’s walk rate dropped from about 11% in Korea to 6% in MLB, in addition to his ISO (a measure of power, SLG% minus batting average) also fell from .206 to .173. However, his average managed to stay at .287, just 11 points shy of his career mark in the KBO. I can certainly see some reason to worry about a player who relies even more on walking and power trying to transition over here and produce right away. If he shows contact issues, his power numbers could drop, and both may lead to pitchers going after him more, which in turn limits his walks.
If that’s not enough, the Steamer projection system seems to view Kang’s year as a bit flukey, and has him OPS coming down from .816 to .739. While that is far from a perfect system, it does have value, and Kang’s .344 BABIP does seem a touch higher than one might expect going forward.
Of course, this was a very quick analysis and there are a lot more variables at play. I personally was hoping my Seattle Mariners would be in on Park, but this research has me a little less optimistic than I previously was. I still think he is certainly worth the risk for someone, and would at least figure to be a Mark Trumbo-esque bopper, but I don’t know if I would anticipate much more than that until he actually shows it on Major League soil.