Are Park Byung-ho's injuries a sign he's starting to slide?
The 2020 season is an important one for a number of veteran players in the KBO, with an unusual number nearing free agency in the next couple of years.
Although Kiwoom Heroes’ slugger Park Byung-ho won’t earn his free agent status this year, he will become a free agent in 2021. Since he has less than two years remaining, injury can be crucial.
Having returned to the KBO after his two-year stint in the major league — playing for the Minnesota Twins in 2016 and 2017 — injuries have been a major problem in his career.
This year was no exception.
During the Heroes’ game against the NC Dinos on Aug. 19 in Changwon, South Gyeongsang, Park was hit by a pitch on his left hand. After getting his hand checked, it was originally reported that he is expected to miss about three weeks. However, due to his slower-than-expected recovery, Park’s still out of the Heroes roster.
“As his bones haven’t healed completely, it’s expected to take about another month for him to fully recover,” said Heroes manager Son Hyuk on Sept. 16.
But this doesn’t mean that Park will be back in the Heroes’ lineup within a month. Since he needs to wait for his hand to heal before starting his rehabilitation and training, it is highly unlikely that Park will appear in the batter’s box in the regular season this year.
Until his injury, Park had played in 83 games for the Heroes this season with a batting average of 0.229, 20 home runs and 58 RBIs. Since 2012, this is the first time that he has failed to play in less than 100 games in a single season.
Looking at his performance this season, Park was fairly inconsistent. His batting average of 0.229 is the lowest since he joined the Heroes in 2011.
Although Park is unlikely to play 100 games, he still managed to make headlines this season when he hit his 20th home run of the season back on Aug. 11 during a game against the Hanwha Eagles. By hitting his 20th home run of the season, Park became only the second player in KBO history to knock 20 home runs out of the park in seven straight seasons.
His record ties that of former Samsung Lions slugger Lee Seung-yuop. As Lee retired in 2017, Park has a shot at setting a new record if he manages to hit 20 home runs or more next season.
When Park returned to the KBO in 2018 after two seasons in the major league, his impact was immediate, finishing the season with a 0.345 batting average with 43 home runs and 112 RBIs.
Forty-three home runs was good enough for him to win the KBO’s home run title for a fourth straight season, since 2012.
Even last year, when the KBO changed its official baseball and a lot of the top sluggers suddenly lost their power, it didn’t seem to affect Park significantly, as he still managed to hit 33 home runs to once again take home the home run title.
But while Park is still a threat in the batter’s box, his slugging percentage this season suggests the glory days may be over.
Back in 2018, Park was the only batter in the KBO to have a slugging percentage above 0.700, at 0.718. However, that number has been decreasing significantly each season, at 0.560 in 2019 and down to 0.469 this year.
Park has also been striking out more. Last season, Park struck out 117 times throughout 122 games in the regular season, but this year, he already struck out 102 time in 83 games.
“This season, I’m having a hard time figuring out the timing of my batting,” Park said. “As I lost consistency at-bat significantly, I started to lose confidence.”
Park’s number may be getting worse but that doesn’t mean that he’s not worth much for the Heroes. As a veteran, Park has been a huge help to his younger teammates. Since he can’t play, Park has been throwing batting balls to his teammates before the game and advising to the young players.
“Since the start of the season, he’s been saying that he’ll help a lot as a veteran [on the team],” Son said. “Even when his stats weren’t good, he would encourage the younger players in the dugout and has been helping a lot. Since he’s in a situation where he can’t play, he is probably going through the hardest time and is the most disappointed.”
Park is likely to miss the rest of the Heroes’ regular season but things could change if the club advances to the postseason. As the Heroes are ranked second as of Wednesday, they are very likely to head to the playoffs.
Currently, the expected end date to the KBO’s 2020 regular season is Oct. 18, but that could change as some teams will have to play canceled games.
Keeping that in consideration, the postseason this year is expected to be extended until the end of November, at the latest. If the Heroes advance to the Korean Series, it is highly likely that the fans will see Park return to the roster.
BY PARK SO-YOUNG, KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]