When the Twins signed Byung-ho Park out of the Korean Baseball Organization last offseason, the team — and its long-suffering fanbase — had reason to be excited. Minnesota had scouted Park for years before finally reeling him in. Park posted a .281/.387/.564 line across 11 KBO seasons, including a .343/.436/.714 line in 2015. For an offense-starved Twins club, a two-time KBO MVP looked pretty savory.
Sadly, Park fell far short of that standard in his MLB debut. Over 244 big-league plate appearances, he hit a measly .191/.275/.409. That translated to a wRC+ of 80 — a subpar figure for any hitter, and a flat-out terrible one for a first baseman/designated hitter. Even though the Twins owe Park less than $10 million over the remainder of his contract, they designated him for assignment earlier this month. Given Park’s struggles in 2016, I can’t blame the team for being pessimistic.
What ailed Park last season? He went down on strikes in 32.8 percent of his plate appearances — only 11 other hitters (including two of his Twins teammates) struck out more — and his 8.6 percent walk rate wasn’t enough to make up for that. But man does not hit on walks and strikeouts alone. Park’s .230 BABIP, the seventh-lowest in the majors, was what really hurt him. And based on his batted-ball profile, that mark isn’t too surprising.
These are the 375 hitters with at least 100 batted balls tracked by Statcast last year. Park is circled in red, but even if he wasn’t, you wouldn’t have a hard time spotting him:
In 2016, Park had an exit velocity of 97.2 mph on balls put in the air; that ranked him ninth in the majors, ahead of Miguel Cabrera, Freddie Freeman, and Kris Bryant. At the same time, Park had an exit velocity of 79.9 mph on balls put on the ground; that ranked him 373rd in the majors, ahead of Oswaldo Arcia, Brandon Belt, and…well, that’s it.
Statcast can be somewhat unreliable — it doesn’t capture every ball put in play — so we should take this with a grain of salt. But other, more trustworthy measurements give us the same conclusion: When Park put the ball in the air, he crushed it. When he put it on the ground, he tapped it weakly.
Last season, 323 hitters had at least 80 fly balls and line drives combined. In that group, Park ranked:
- 52nd in hard contact rate (48.1 percent)
- 299th in medium contact rate (37.0 percent)
- 154th in soft contact (14.8 percent)
Simultaneously, 371 hitters had at least 50 ground balls. In that group, Park ranked:
- 173rd in hard contact rate (21.1 percent)
- 309th in medium contact rate (50.9 percent)
- 56th in soft contact (28.1 percent)
No matter how you slice it, Park raked in the air and struggled on the ground. While the former gave him a formidable .218 ISO, the latter severely limited his BABIP — and his offense as a whole.
So what does Park have to do to get more of this…
…and less of this?
He’s not a ground ball-prone hitter, per se. His 41.3 percent ground ball rate sandwiched him between Mike Trout (41.2 percent) and Mookie Betts (41.4 percent) — last year’s AL MVP and runner-up. Park’s approach was that of a power hitter, with a lot more swings on pitches up in the zone:
Still, Park could stand to put the ball in the air a little more often. Backing off a bit on low pitches, and hacking a little more often at high pitches, would shave his ground ball rate down to the mid-30s. If he kept hitting his fly balls hard, that would pump up his ISO further.
It also bears mentioning that, even with his soft grounders, Park should have performed better than he did in 2016. Despite the fact that he smoked his fly balls and line drives, he had a .261 BABIP when putting the ball in the air, the eighth-lowest in the majors. As Park gets more playing time, defenders will stop robbing him — seriously, it happened a lot last year — and his batting line will improve.
In the offseason, Park worked on shortening his swing; thus far in spring training, he’s already hit two home runs. This comes after he underwent season-ending wrist surgery in August, which he’s recovered from by now. Underneath the 2016 hardship, there remains the hitter who tore up the KBO. If he can hit his ground balls a little bit harder — or just hit less of them — that hitter might emerge.