ByungHo Park Tries To Catch Up By Slowing Down
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Park went from hitting long shots last March to becoming a longshot this time around after losing his 40-man roster spot. But with Kennys Vargas away at the World Baseball Classic, the 30-year-old is taking advantage of his opportunity to pile up at-bats.
Sure, the thump has been there – he leads the team with three home runs (I mean, #ParkBangs). But that’s nothing new, as it was clear from the moment he arrived that his prodigious power was legit. Now, it’s the subtler things that are gaining notice.
He drew yet another start on Sunday and once again made the most of it. No, there was no 500-foot moonshot. But Park did fight off a tough pitch for a bloop single over the second baseman’s head, and laid off a borderline offering on a full count to draw a walk.
Therein lies the most conspicuous distinction between this spring and last. In his first camp, Park displayed plenty of pop but the ghastly plate discipline – evidenced by a 17-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio – was an unshakably ominous harbinger. This year, his improved approach at the dish is evident in a K/BB that stands at 6-to-4 following Sunday’s contest.
Manager Paul Molitor has certainly taken notice of this adjustment.
"I like that he’s swinging at a lot of strikes,” Molitor said over the weekend. "We haven’t seen the huge expansion of the zone, or the panic. It seems like there’s a lot more calmness to his at-bats and trust in his approach.”
While he’s not one to make excuses on anyone’s behalf, Molitor noted that the foreign import faced a variety of exacerbating factors as an MLB rookie. “The microscope was fairly intense," as he put it.
The Korean media throngs that swarmed through Hammond Field last year have now dissipated to a sparse contingent. The widespread attention and notoriety attached to a KBO superstar arriving in America have faded.
Park has been humbled, first by a midseason demotion to the minors that proved season-long, and then by a trip through waivers – unclaimed – during the offseason. Setbacks like these can be a driving force in self-actualization.
Add in the surgical repair of a finger tendon issue that hampered him for much of the summer, and there’s a strong basis for belief that some key circumstantial changes will make Park’s second go at it far more fruitful.
But one thing that’s not going to change is the speed of those major-league fastballs. The data on Park’s lackluster production against pitches buzzing in 93+ MPH, which he rarely if ever saw in South Korea, is stark.
"He was a little bit intimidated by last year,” bench coach Joe Vavra suggested. “The excessive velocity compared to what he’s used to, that was in his head.”
Now? The former Twins batting instructor detects an unmistakable shift. While the blazing heaters won’t cool off, a mellower mental state could make them more manageable.
"His mind has slowed down, if anything, and that really relaxes him at the plate,” said Vavra. "You don’t see him too anxious and overexcited in any one at-bat."
Molitor opined that the relentless speed of the game at its highest level, in conjunction with the team’s horrendous season-opening slump, contributed to sending the first-year big-leaguer into a spiral.
Park was one of five Twins appearing in an Opening Day MLB lineup for the first time last April, the manager pointed out, and "although he’s an experienced player, it was new for him.” The former KBO MVP had grown accustomed to carrying his club.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Molitor said. "I think it’s part of his makeup and part of his culture that they have a huge accountability factor.”
All the more reason to believe fierce efforts over the winter are playing into this early success. Park is visibly more comfortable in the batter’s box. But, then again, it’s spring training. When the games don’t matter and the pitchers aren’t going full bore, it’s much easier to manage emotions and stay on an even keel.
Can he do it in the regular season? Will he get the chance, with the non-roster barrier now standing in his way? Even if he keeps doing encouraging things on the field, the Twins can still easily justify sending him to Triple-A, where he failed to distinguish himself last year. This would enable the front office to delay tough DFA decisions involved with re-adding him to the 40-man.
He doesn't exactly have the largest obstacle blocking him though. Well, in the literal sense, yes, Vargas is a big man. But he isn't exactly doing much to stymie Park's advance. Vargas went 1-for-13 in Grapefruit play before reporting to Puerto Rico for the WBC, where he has started one of three games (and went hitless).
Either way, it's starting to feel like it won't be long before Park is back... with a bang?
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