Is Byung-ho Park the Next KBO Player to Join MLB?
Far and away the best hitter in South Korea’s KBO is young 1Bman Byung-Ho Park. He’s 27 years old this year, and he led the KBO in home runs each of the last two seasons. So far in 2014, he’s having his best year ever, leading the league with 27 HRs, nine more than the league’s number two man, and he’s also leading the KBO with a 1.226 OPS. In fact, he’s on a pace to break the all-time KBO single season home run record, currently held by Seung-Yeop Lee, who hit 56 in 2003.
The question now is whether Park moves on to Japan’s NPB, as most Korean superstars do, including most recently Dae-Ho Lee, or he has what it takes to play in MLB. In Park’s favor are the facts that he is young, strong and seems to be improving each season he plays. Against Park coming to the U.S. are the facts that his power will drop greatly playing in MLB parks against MLB pitchers and that his batting averages in the KBO have not been particularly high (he hit .290 and .318 the last two seasons and .313 so far in 2014. I expect that MLB teams scouting Asian hitters want to see the ability to hit for average as well as power with Hideki Matsui being the prime example.
The KBO is in the midst of an offensive surge this season with five hitters batting at least .370 and eleven hitting at least .350 and only three starting pitchers in the league with ERAs below 3.40. This has a tendency to make one wonder how much Park’s 2014 numbers are inflated.
The safest move would be for Park to sign with an NPB team, since he will almost certainly be a star in Japan. As a result, a Japanese team might more highly value his services than an MLB team. However, the quality of KBO play is definitely improving, and Park could well be the first KBO position player to make the jump to MLB.