Upcoming season make or break for Korean pitcherWith spring training in full swing, the peninsula is once again focused on the handful of Koreans plying their trade in the major leagues. Particular attention will be paid to Park Chan-ho of the Texas Rangers, who posted a 1-3 record with a 7.58 ERA last season, owing mainly to injuries.
A pulled hamstring, disc problems and blisters on his throwing hand put Park on the disabled list for the first time in his major league career. Being 30 years old and having just come through an injury-riddled season, Park would be considered on the downward slope of his career if he were pitching in Korea, where 30 is generally viewed as the age past which a pitcher’s performance declines ― even though players like Song Jin-woo, 39, of the Hanwha Eagles prove that with the right conditioning, one’s pitching career can be prolonged far past the accepted norm.
So far, Park seems to have recovered from his disc problem. With the best medical care available, there are many examples of pitchers in the major leagues who made successful comebacks after being seriously injured. Kevin Brown revived his career last season when he went 14-9 with a 2.39 ERA, after going 3-4 in an injury-filled 2002 season.
In addition to adjusting to the American League, the weight on Park’s shoulders due to his position as the Rangers’ highest-paid pitcher ended up being too heavy a burden. He attempted to play, further aggravating his injuries, when logic dictated he should have sat on the bench. Park must have felt constant pressure to deliver the goods ― this for a team that did not offer him much on-field support. At least for the upcoming season the pressure seems to be off.
Texas is hoping that Park will come in at number two in the pitching rotation behind Kenny Rogers and be the man (or at least some of the man) they thought he would be two years ago, when they signed him to a five-year deal worth $65 million.
In his two years with the Rangers, the Korean right-hander has posted a 10-11 record with a 6.06 ERA; another mediocre season, injury or no injury, and chances are good that Park will get the pink slip. The local media has been critical of him since his arrival, and his relationship with skipper Buck Showalter is lukewarm at best.
The key to Park’s revival would be the recovery of his fastball. Last season, injuries prevented him from following through on his throwing motion; Park lost the bite on his ball, and he tried to become a finesse pitcher to compensate. This put him in a lot of full-count situations in which he was bound to flounder without his fastball.
Park was never a “control” type of pitcher. Even when healthy, he issued a lot of base-on balls, and beaned more than a few batters. With Park it was always about the power (218 strikeouts in 2001, fourth in that category), that he draws from his lower part of the body. Even when his fastball has lost some velocity, as long as he has that bite at the plate, he is able to make it work.
I am a believer in Park. I still remember clearly when he made the opening day roster of the Los Angeles Dodgers just two months after arriving in the major leagues. If he stays injury-free and gets his mental game together, I am willing to bet he can regain his old form and pitch more than 200 innings, giving his team at least 13 wins. The real Park must emerge this season. If not, he may be gone for good.
by Brian Lee