Morning, all, and Happy November. The World Series feels like it's nearly over, and the offseason ready to begin in earnest. I'll be putting up my Christmas lights, probably this afternoon since it appears the rain has moved on for the moment. I might -- might -- actually sit down this evening and watch the Royals and Mets play; I haven't quite decided yet.
Oh, who am I kidding? Of course I will. Watching two teams you sort of hate bash away at each other is kind of terrible baseball, but terrible baseball is still baseball, and once this spate of terrible baseball is over, there won't be any at all for the next five months.
There was some conversation a couple days ago in the comments section about Byung-Ho Park, the Korean first baseman set to be posted sometime today, I believe, by his KBO team, the Nexen Heroes. (Correction: Park's posting will take place tomorrow. My mistake. -RB) Park has been mentioned here and there by some local columnist types as a potential fit for the Cardinals and their dire first base situation -- though considering what they're looking at for next season, it may or may not be as dire as we think -- most notably by 101 ESPN's Bernie Miklasz, but there have been other bits and pieces written as well.
I still plan on writing up a fuller rundown on first base going into 2016, and all the options the Cardinals could explore, probably Wednesday morning, and Park will likely be a part of that column. But this morning, I thought I might break out the old scouting cap ahead of starting up draft previews in December and take a deeper look at the Korean slugger it appears plenty of teams, including the Cardinals, are considering ponying up major dollars for the opportunity to sign.
We know the Cards were in on Jung-Ho Kang (in fact, they were the runners-up to the Pirates in bidding on the Korean infielder), so it isn't as if they've shown no interest at all in the KBO. And once again I would like to express regret at the fact the Redbirds were, in fact, outbid on Kang, as he could have potentially taken over at third, moving Matt Carpenter to first, solving that problem definitively, or been exactly the sort of multi-position supersub that's been discussed here quite a lot lately as a near-necessity to avoid Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong playing 160 games a year due to complete shit options on the bench.
Anyhow, we know the Cardinals have scouted KBO before, that they had real interest in signing the league's first major posting, coming up just short in the blind bidding, and that they have a serious need for both power in general and a productive bat at first base in particular. All of those things would suggest that Byung-Ho Park is, in fact, a definite fit here. The question, of course, then becomes: is he worth it?
Byung-Ho Park, 1B, Nexen Heroes
6'1", 230 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
In one word: power. Pure, over-the-fence, light-tower power. Some other stuff, too, but if you want the cribs notes version of why teams care about Byung-Ho Park, and why you should care, it boils down to power.
Park has hit 173 home runs over the past four years, the extent of his career as a full-time starter for Nexen, and has done so in just under 2300 plate appearances. That is elite power production by anyone's measure. Now, a word about the park dimensions in Korea in general: the ballparks are a fair bit smaller than their MLB counterparts, yes. For instance, Mokdong Stadium, where Nexen plays, is 322 down both lines, and just 387 to dead center. Compare that to the current iteration of Busch Stadium, which is ~335 down the lines, and 400 on the nose to center field. Obviously, there is a significant difference in the dimensions. However, the gaps at Mokdong are 371 both ways, compared to 375, so the hitting alleys are not quite as different as you might think, even when comparing it to a pitcher-friendly Busch.
The other consideration here is this: we don't have actual numbers for Park's home runs, as in the just enough/comfortably out/no-doubter kind of classifications we like to use here, so it's possible there is some number of dingers he hit in KBO that would not have left many, if any, major league stadia, and so his production would look vastly different. However, I will say this: there is a highlight reel of every homer he hit in 2014 available here, and I've watched it. Very, very few of Byung-Ho Park's homers are just barely making it out. The vast majority are very much of that Yellowstone Variety, as in that's the one park they wouldn't have been out of.
Quick side question, probably for TuninginfromKorea: what's the deal with the Snoopy dolls? It appears Park gets a Snoopy plushie from the bat girl every time he hits a home run. I'm curious if this is a KBO-wide thing, a Nexen-only thing, or a thing related specifically to Byung-Ho Park. And also why we don't do it here; baseball needs Snoopy dolls, I think.
Anyhow, enough about the park dimensions, what about the Park dimensions? Park himself is broad and powerfully built, but a bit soft through the middle in a way you very rarely see in American players these days. He's built a bit like Kyle Schwarber, actually, only perhaps a slight bit bigger. You would hope Park might improve his conditioning a bit getting into an MLB training program, but perhaps that's not realistic. If not, he's still fine athletically, if a bit limited. He's a below-average runner, but fields his position at first pretty well. One of the nice things about Korean baseball, as compared to Japanese, is the fact KBO fields are outdoor, so there isn't the question of how infielders are going to adjust coming from turf in Japanese domes to grass fields. A small thing, but still a thing all the same. He has good hands, okay range, and I've not seen one mention of his arm in any way, shape, or form. Which says to me it's fine for a first baseman, as in a non-issue.
The swing is interesting to me; Park closes down his front side and then aggressively swings through, with a long finish behind him. It reminds me of both Jhonny Peralta and perhaps even more Hanley Ramirez, though Park utilises more of a step like Peralta than a full leg kick the way Ramirez does. He has outstanding power to all fields, which is maybe the most positive aspect of his game to me, as he isn't selling out for pull power. There are 375'+ homers to straightaway right field in that highlight reel, particularly on pitches low in the zone, that are enough to make a baseball fan drool.
My primary concerns regarding Park are his ability to hit velocity, and an overall step backward in his approach at the plate this year. The body is a minor concern as well, but not something I'm really worried about in a real way.
There simply isn't anything approaching MLB velocity present in the KBO, where typical fastball velocity ranges anywhere from 85-89 mph. Compare that to MLB, where the average velocity is now somewhere in the ~93 mph range, if I remember correctly, and there is a real chance Park may have a tough time adjusting. The ability of Jung-Ho Kang to adjust and have great success his first season in the big leagues is certainly encouraging, but doesn't guarantee another player will have that same ease of transition. Considering Park's strikeout rate, which was nearly 25% in 2014 and close to 26% this year, I worry that facing fastballs 5-10 mph faster than what he's seen in Korea could leave Park struggling to make enough contact to be productive.
However, I'm also not convinced that's the case. Park's timing mechanism in his swing isn't so complex he should struggle to adjust, and there really isn't much I can see of his swing mechanics in general that really frightens me. He might have a bit of an arm bar (straight front arm), but there's also a question of whether that's simply a function of where a given pitch is located. He is a tremendous low ball hitter, and appears to prefer the ball out over the plate, so again, there is some suggestion he's more of a mistake, slider-speed hitter, but I'm definitely not convinced he can't make the adjustment to hit big league velocity.
As for the overall plate approach, Park has gone from a near 1:1 walk to strikeout ratio in 2013 (92 BBs, 96 Ks), to whiffing more than twice as often as he walked in 2015 (161 Ks, 78 BBs). That overall degradation of his contact rate has coincided with an uptick in homers from 37 in 2013 to over 50 each of the last two seasons, so it appears he may have made the Matt Carpenter sacrifice, but I wonder if it's really worth it. For my money, I would much prefer a player who shows the kind of plate coverage and discipline of 2013 Park, while still hitting 37 dingers in ~550 PAs, rather than the 50+ home run guy who's striking out a quarter of the time he's been the last couple years.
However, the 2015 numbers in particular seem to point, to me at least, to a player with whatever the KBO posting system version of draftitis is. Draftitis, in case you aren't familiar, is the disease which afflicts lots of high school seniors and college juniors the year they're drafted, when they suddenly have more money than they've ever imagined in their lives riding on their performance. Symptoms generally include a sudden desire to swing at pitches they would normally let go, muscling up to try and hit homers to impress any scouts possibly in attendance, and overthrowing breaking balls like crazy. In other words, pressing to try and make an impression. Given the fact Park has been making noise about hopefully being posted since last offseason, it's possible there was some anxiousness in his approach this season, knowing he was auditioning for the world. I'm not saying he's going back to 2008 Pujols levels of plate approach anytime soon, but I am saying he appeared less patient this year than in the past, and I wonder if the desire to make it happen on every single pitch fed into that somewhat.
The easy comp for Park is Jose Abreu, the Cuban first baseman signed by the White Sox before the 2014 season who set the league on fire his first season, then came back to Earth in a big way his second. He was still good in 2015, mind you; just not mind-blowing. Teams figured out how to use Abreu's aggressiveness against him in a way Cuban teams rarely did -- a side effect of the higher velocity here in the states -- and his walk rate cratered while his strikeout rate remained virtually the same. The power didn't disappear, but it was dampened some.
Compared to Abreu, I actually think Park might be the more patient hitter. He doesn't have quite the bat to ball contact skills, but the power isn't all that different. Park is probably closer to a three true outcomes sort of hitter than Abreu overall. On a positive note, I think Park is a substantially better athlete in general than Abreu, and should be able to handle first base at a much better level. At the very least, he shouldn't be the kind of liability in the field that Abreu has shown himself to be, to the point that DH becomes the only really acceptable position.
Is Byung-Ho Park worth investing in? With a couple days' serious consideration, watching some video, and looking at the numbers, as well as what limited scouting info I could find, I think the answer is absolutely yes. Would I pay a $20 million posting fee for Park, as has been suggested in some quarters? Honestly, I probably would. Considering that's slightly less than three wins worth of marginal value on the market right now, and plenty of teams are just looking for good ways to invest their money, I would consider that $20 million figure completely acceptable.
How good could he be? Well, that's a tougher question. Byung-Ho Park could absolutely be a star, I think. Not a guarantee he is one, of course, but there's a definite chance. He has plenty of power that I don't worry about his home runs not translating to MLB (though I'm sure the totals will certainly come down some), and has shown in the past an ability to walk at a very high clip that should help him get on base in the big leagues, even as I'm sure he will struggle a bit to adjust to the velocity at the MLB level. The potential downside, of course, is he simply can't adjust to the speed of the game, the pitching velocity overwhelms him, and he ends up a pure mistake hitter who can be overpowered by pitchers with good fastballs in the zone, negating his willingness to wait for a walk.
Is Byung-Ho Park worth investing in for the Cardinals specifically? I would say yes, definitely. They have a need for power in a big way, they've been hesitant to expand into international markets in the past, and considering the DH may be coming to the National League in the relatively near future, it might not be a bad time to invest in an extra bat, even if you don't completely know where you're going to play said bat every day right now. There's an opportunity here, to buy something like the age 29-33 seasons of what could be a premium power bat for a rate far below what the market might dictate were he a major league free agent.
I have some reservations about Byung-Ho Park coming to MLB, and what that might look like for the player. The more I look at the situation, though, the more convinced I am he would be an excellent investment for the Cardinals to make.
In the meantime, here's some video of Park hitting four dingers in a game.