Can Byung-Ho Park Resurrect His Career?
The Minnesota Twins made an unsurprising move late last week when they signed dependable veteran right-handed reliever Matt Belisle to a one-year contract. The surprise came when the team announced that the corresponding move on the 40-man roster was to designate Byung-Ho Park for assignment.
That left the team with 10 days to trade or release Park, with the option to run him through waivers during the 10 days for the purpose of outrighting him to Triple-A Rochester. Since Park doesn’t have the requisite service time -- three years to forego his salary, five years to have it guaranteed -- or a previous outright on his record, he’ll have no choice but to accept the assignment if he clears waivers.
Basically, the Twins decided they don’t have a problem with keeping Park around, but if some team is willing to take his entire contract, they won’t get in the way of it.
Hurt by the Market
It’s an interesting proposition and most likely a calculated one by Twins bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. Park is owed $2.75 million in 2017 and $3 million in each of the next two years thereafter, with a $6.5 million team option in 2020 -- his age-33 season -- that comes with a $500,000 buyout. That’s a guarantee of $9.25 million left to Park from the Twins -- or a claiming team -- but it comes at a strange time in the finances of the game.
Chris Carter signed with the New York Yankees -- a team with no obvious need or fit, necessarily -- on Tuesday for just $3.5 million plus incentives based on plate appearances. Earlier in the day, a similar hitter in Mike Napoli agreed to a deal with the Texas Rangers. Finances weren’t immediately available and the deal may take a week to formalize due to 40-man implications, but according to Jim Bowden of ESPN.com it appears to be an $8.5 million deal with incentives and a team option for 2018.
Both of these hitters are of the ilk that one would hope Park could reach -- that is, with immense power but still decent offensive prowess in spite of high strikeout numbers. Napoli faded hard down the stretch with the Cleveland Indians, which probably led to his diminished market. Over the final six weeks, spanning 41 games, Napoli hit just .160/.291/.278 for the Indians, which dropped his season OPS from .881 to an even .800 as the regular season came to a close. In 10 of his final 12 games last season, Napoli went hitless. It wasn’t pretty.
Ultimately though, what may be of interest here is that despite the modest sums they signed for, Carter and Napoli being snapped up while Park is still in designated-for-assignment limbo might mean that a team could jump in the ring for his services if they missed out on one of the other two.
One need not look to far to find a club who might be interested in Park’s services, as the Twins’ divisional foes the Chicago White Sox have a hole at designated hitter (DH). As of right now, MLB.com has Matt Davidson (89 career plate appearances) penciled in as the team’s DH, backed up by Avisail Garcia (.695 career OPS), who is starting in right field.
Now it’s unclear, but it looks like the MLB depth charts don’t use players who aren’t on the 40-man roster, which means candidates like Cody Asche (.684 career OPS) could also be in the mix, but none these players don’t have the same offensive potential as Park, or at least not what he showed early with the Twins last season.
What Park Did in 2016
Park’s OPS peaked at .949 following a May 7th game against the White Sox last season. To that point, he was hitting .268/.351/.598 with 7 home runs in 94 plate appearances (25 games). However, over Park’s final 37 games, he hit just .143/.227/.293 (not unlike Napoli’s closing stretch) before he was banished to Triple-A Rochester.
With the Red Wings, Park hit .224/.297/.526 with 10 home runs in 31 games before he was shut down for the rest of the season with wrist and hand issues which required surgery.
“It’s been bothering me,” Park told Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in late August before having surgery. “Not seriously, but the pain has been there time to time.”
It's possible the injury was a big reason for the downturn in Park’s production. While that can’t be immediately ruled out, it’s also worth noting that even when Park was at his best in that early stretch, he was still striking out 28.7 percent of the time. During his aforementioned downturn, that rate jumped to 35.3 percent. Again, an injury can’t be ruled out, but neither can pitchers adjusting to Park, with him failing to do the same back.
One of the chief concerns with Park coming over from the Korean Baseball Organization was that he may not have been subjected to the high-end velocity that can be seen over here in the United States -- particularly in the later innings.
Part of that can be sussed out by checking the splits page for Park on BaseballReference.com. There, we can break down Park’s plate appearances into those against “power” pitchers, “finesse” pitchers and then a common middle ground called “average P/F.” The divider between these classifications are top, middle and bottom third of strikeouts plus walks over the previous and next three years, when available. (So a split in 1997 would include the years 1994 to 2000.)
While imperfect, it does give a pretty good glimpse into how/why Park struggled.
|Split||Average||On-Base Percentage||Slugging Percentage|
That’s pretty striking, and it's a pretty big indictment on Park’s ability to make adjustments, albeit in relatively small sample sizes.
Another thing we can do is go to Baseball Savant and get a PITCHf/x breakdown of how Park fared against pitches of a certain speed. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but with a few clicks, we should be able to find about where Park’s breaking point was last season, velocity-wise.
Here’s a look at Park’s batting average and slugging percentages on pitches at these velocities and higher.
|Pitch Speed in Miles Per Hour (MPH)||Average||Slugging Percentage|
Yikes. We probably don’t need to go any further here. Park’s only hit on a pitch over 95 MPH as a big leaguer was a home run against Michael Pineda on June 18th. That stands to reason, then, that he hit just .050 (1-for-20) with a .200 slugging percentage (in other words, four times the batting average). Seven of those plate appearances (35 percent) ended in strikeouts.
Let’s try one more thing. According to Fangraphs, the average four-seam fastball velocity last year was 92.4 MPH and on the two-seamer it was 92 MPH. For the easy of division, we’ll call the average American League fastball last season 92 MPH. According to Baseball Savant, here’s how Park’s damage divides out based on those specifics (by average/slugging percentage). On pitches at least 92 MPH, he hit .133 (10 for 75) with a .240 slugging percentage. On pitches slower than 92 MPH, he hit .223 (31 for 139) with a .504 slugging percentage.
That’s pretty stark, and it's pretty clear that just throwing league-average fastballs will be enough to get Park out.
Now again, we can’t be completely sure that Park was healthy all season to validate these results. Maybe just 244 plate appearances isn’t enough to legitimize our concerns here, but it doesn’t look good for a 30-year-old power guy to not be able to catch up to league-average fastballs.
This may just be a sunk cost for the Twins unless another team makes a claim. If he ends up in Rochester, Park is going to have to improve his performance against heaters if he wants to get back to the Twin Cities.