Is 50-Homer Korean Slugger Byung Ho Park Cut Out for MLB Stardom?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 14, 2016

Minnesota Twins' Byung Ho Park (52) during a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Saturday, April 9, 2016. The Royals defeated the Twins 7-0. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Byung Ho Park was basically the Bryce Harper of the Korea Baseball Organization. In his last four seasons, in particular, many baseballs were obliterated by his bat.

But now with the Minnesota Twins, Park is already raising the question: Does he have the goods to translate his talent to Major League Baseball?

Nobody on the 0-8 Twins is having a fun time so far in 2016, but Park has arguably endured the worst of it. Through six games, he's hit just .143 with a .536 OPS and one home run. Things are going so poorly for Minnesota's $25 million man, in fact, that manager Paul Molitor pulled him for a pinch hitter on Monday.

"I'm sure it has happened when I was younger," Park told Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press through an interpreter, "but I couldn't really say exactly when."

There certainly wasn't much need to pinch hit for Park when he was in Korea. The 29-year-old gradually morphed into an unstoppable slugger, peaking with two amazing seasons for the Nexen Heroes in 2014 and 2015. All told, he posted a 1.136 OPS and slugged 105 home runs.

According to legend and this video, one of those long balls traveled a mind-boggling 522 feet:

On paper, the main reason why Park is having such a difficult time tapping into the power in MLB is obvious: He's striking out a lot. He's whiffed in 12 of his first 24 plate appearances.

This isn't too surprising. Park did have a strikeout habit in Korea, after all, whiffing 24.5 percent of the time. And since that was against inferior pitching, more strikeouts in MLB were likely inevitable.

A relevant case study would be Jung Ho Kang, Park's countryman and a breakout star for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015. He had a career 16.9 strikeout percentage in Korea, but came over here and posted a 21.2 percent K rate last season. Even for a talented all-around hitter like him, adjusting to MLB pitching was tough.

To his credit, Park knows what he needs to do to start making more contact.

"When a hitter gets a lot of strikeouts, the answer is clear," he told Berardino. "My timing is totally off. I need to work on that. I have to figure it out. It's my job, and I'm going to work hard on it."

For Park to get his timing right, he's likely going to have to adjust his complicated timing mechanisms to work against MLB pitching.

Consider a swing and miss against a 93 mph heater from Kansas City Royals reliever Dillon Gee. As Gee goes into his windup, Park remains flatfooted:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

As Gee prepares to release the ball, Park goes into a toe tap:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

But then, as the ball is on its way, Park uses a slight leg kick:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Since there's a lot going on there, it's no shock that the pitch is already on Park by the time he gets his front foot down:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

There's a dilemma at play here. There are plenty of hitters who use toe-tap timing mechanisms, and plenty who use leg-kick timing mechanisms. But it's hard to think of hitters who use both, and it's even harder to think of hitters whose leg kicks reach their zenith while a pitch is on the way.

Kang so happens to be a good example. As you can see in a clip of him knocking a dinger last August, his big leg kick reaches its zenith before the pitcher has even thrown the ball:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Check out the swings of Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista, two more guys noted for their leg kicks, and it's the same thing. And though Donaldson, Bautista and Kang all hold their leg kicks as pitches travel toward the plate, starting early allows them to time the ball the whole way.

Park's hitting mechanics make it tough for him to do that in his new surroundings, where the velocity is higher than he was used to in Korea. And based on the early results, it sure seems like something is going to have to give. He may need to start his whole timing process earlier. Or, he may need to go with the toe tap or the leg kick rather than both.

And yet, there is good news.

If Park is able to get his timing down, the swing that produced so much power in Korea should produce power in MLB too. He's already demonstrated the potential, as his first and only dinger was crushed:

According to Baseball Savant, that ball was going 111.3 mph off the bat and traveled 433.5 feet. Numbers like those generally come from real power.

On that topic, "real power" was precisely what Park was supposed to bring from Korea. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that one team (probably the Twins) was convinced his power was legit. According to Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com, at least one scout (probably a Twins scout) thought the same.

And in writing about where Park's power comes from, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote:

Park hits fly-ball-swing home runs, striking everything with an elevated bat path, and while I don't have detailed Korean statistics, it wouldn't shock me to see Park as a fairly extreme fly-ball hitter stateside. I'm expecting a groundball rate below 40%. And Park has the power to hit the ball out anywhere.

Early on, Sullivan's notion that Park's swing is built for fly balls looks dead-on. Of the 12 balls he had put in play going into Wednesday, only one was a ground ball. That's next to five fly balls. Though he's unlikely to keep up a fly-ball rate that high, it's certainly a promising start.

Sullivan also noted that Park had a surprisingly quick swing for a power hitter, and that's something that also shows through in the video above. Whereas his timing mechanisms take a long time to develop, his swing is relatively quick. He does a good job of keeping his hands back and close to his body, allowing him to be direct to the ball with a strong finish.

As such, there's actually not much standing between Park and gaudy numbers. If he can get his timing figured out, he'll be able to make better use of a quick swing that'll produce a lot of fly balls, a lot of hard contact and, of course, a lot of power.

If it can be done, it's not going to happen overnight. It could take days, weeks or even months of searching before Park finds something that works. And until he does, it's likely to keep being ugly.

But don't give up on him becoming a major league star just yet. After playing huge in Korea, his talent could still play big in MLB.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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