'Comfortable' Park putting past behind him

First baseman healthy, batting .394 with 4 home runs this spring

March 21st, 2017

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As a youngster trying to justify himself as a first-round pick of his hometown LG Twins in Seoul, ByungHo Park would often take batting practice until his hands bled, according to reporters who covered him in South Korea.

Park had to compete with several other players for playing time on the LG Twins, the equivalent of the Yankees in Korea. But it didn't pan out for Park, who never hit higher than .218 or hit more than nine homers in five years with LG. It wasn't until a trade to the small-market Nexen Heroes that Park really took off.

Executives from his new team simply told Park to relax and that first base was his, easing some of the pressure he was putting on himself. Park immediately produced and became one of the best players in the Korean Baseball Organization over the next six seasons, being named the league's MVP twice. He smacked a combined 105 homers over his final two years before signing with the Twins last offseason on a four-year $12 million deal after a $12.85 million posting fee.

But that self-induced pressure returned in his first year in the Majors, as he'd often be seen taking extra batting practice long after his teammates during Spring Training and during the season as he tried to adapt to hitting Major League pitching. Park saw some early success in the Majors, homering nine times in his first 29 games, but it all started to fall apart in mid-May before a demotion to the Minors.

That extra work took its toll, as Park suffered a wrist injury that he downplayed throughout the season -- including his stint at Triple-A Rochester -- until it was ultimately repaired via season-ending surgery in August.

This year, Park made it a point to come to camp with a clear head and a smarter way to prepare despite being designated for assignment and removed from the 40-man roster shortly before camp.

"As in quantity, it's less, but in terms of quality, it's better," Park said through a translator. "It's been great. In terms of my body, I feel no pain in my wrist."

It's certainly working for Park this spring, as he's been Minnesota's best hitter, batting .394 with four homers and eight RBIs, including a monster two-run shot off Toronto's on Monday. Notably, Park has had success against mid-90s fastballs, which was his issue last year, when he went 1-for-20 on pitches 95 mph or higher.

"The main thing is just getting an early timing at the plate," Park said. "It's been executed really well. I worked hard at that in the offseason." 

But his teammates believe it's more than Park simply adapting to the higher velocity in the Majors, as he downplayed the hand injury that was clearly affecting his approach.

"I know his wrist was really hurting last year," Twins second baseman said. "When you do that as a hitter, you try to cheat to pitches instead of attacking balls because you're overcompensating. But he's healthy and now you see that tremendous bat speed."

That bat speed leads to legitimate power, even last year, as evidenced by Statcast™. He had an average exit velocity of 97.2 mph on fly balls and line drives that ranked as the 10th-best mark in the Majors, and he ranked second to the Yankees' in percent of balls categorized as "barreled" by Statcast™. Park also struck out 80 times in 215 at-bats, but has fared better this spring, striking out nine times in 33 at-bats.

"You watch him and he looks comfortable," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "He's swinging at a lot of strikes."

Molitor, though, wouldn't commit to Park being on the Opening Day roster just yet, as he's still competing with for the everyday designated hitter role. But the club petitioned for and was granted another option year on Vargas, potentially clearing the way for Park to be added to the 40 and 25-man rosters as the DH, with Vargas being optioned to Triple-A Rochester.

But it's clear what players in the clubhouse want to see happen after Park's breakout spring.

"He's going to help us tremendously this year and I just want him to know that," Dozier said. "Everybody in here, we want him on this team."