The not-so-breaking news is this: at various points in this year’s offseason, the Twins came to terms with Korean first baseman Byung-ho Park, the Orioles did the same with Korean outfielder Hyun-soo Kim, and the Dodgers signed Japanese starting pitcher Kenta Maeda.
The actual breaking news, depending on your definition of the word breaking: those guys now have FanGraphs player pages! Technically, their player pages appeared on the site late last week, but now they’re equipped with their own unique 2016 Steamer projections and have been factored into our depth charts.
Projections for any player should be discussed, questioned, and mentally tweaked when seen fit, because they’re not meant to be taken as gospel, they’re meant to be used as a guide. For all players, especially those with unique circumstances, the projections come with error bars. “Never having played in America” certainly counts as a unique circumstance, and so of course the projections for Park, Kim, and Maeda fit the bill.
Steamer does what it can. It starts with international league stats, and adjusts them based on estimated quality of league, just like it does with minor leaguers transitioning to the bigs. There’s also an adjustment for the frequency of events between leagues — for instance, there are slightly more strikeouts in the MLB than the NPB, and way more strikeouts than in Cuba. Jared Cross, creator of Steamer, wrote about some of these adjustments for ESPN when Jose Abreu came to America.
Below, I’ll reveal the projections for each of the three players, spend a bit of time discussing what we know about each guy and their expected role in the major leagues for 2016, and I’ll leave a poll to crowdsource the opinions of the projections. I don’t see the need for a follow-up post on the results, it’ll just be nice to know the public opinion for these guys, seeing as they come with more uncertainty that most any other player, and it might be something that gives us a chuckle when we look back at it.
When Jeff Sullivan wrote up Park after the Twins posted the winning bid on him in early November, he appropriately titled his post “Byung-ho Park Can Hit the (Snot) Out of the Ball.” The title was appropriate, you see, because Byung-ho Park can hit the snot out of baseballs. In that post, Sullivan included some .gifs and screenshots of Park hitting dingers, and rightfully noted that Park certainly has the bat path to produce plenty of fly balls, and the strength for plenty of those fly balls to turn into homers. Steamer sees Park hitting 30 into the seats in a full season’s worth of playing time, in his first MLB go-around.
The red flag for Park, and this projection, is the alarmingly high strikeout rate. It’s not so high to where it can’t be masked by the power — just last year, Chris Davis, Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson all succeeded as above-average hitters with higher — but it’s high enough to where you feel like Park’s already working with little room for error.
Here’s ESPN’s Keith Law on Park:
“…scouts seem to agree that Park’s power will translate, though perhaps not his batting average, as he’s strong but without great bat speed; he led the KBO in strikeouts by a wide margin. Park has very strong hands and rotates his hips very well for power, but closes too much when he strides and could be vulnerable on the inner-third, as well as against better velocity.
I think he’s a boom-or-bust free agent. Either you’re getting an above-average regular at first base who hits 30 bombs with a decent OBP, or you’re getting a Quad-A player who doesn’t make enough contact to get to the power.”
The last thing I’ll note is the defensive projection, which is entirely the product of the positional adjustment; Steamer assumes league-average fielding ability for players without service time. Reports seem to indicate Park will spend most of his time as Minnesota’s designated hitter, which is reflected in our depth chart’s projections, while occasionally spelling Joe Mauer at first base. For what it’s worth, at least one scout called Park a plus defender at first base with a plus arm, and another put a 55 on him defensively at first.
Again, we’ll pull briefly from Sullivan’s initial writeup of Kim, in which he notes that the lazy comp for Kim is Nori Aoki, but that digging a bit deeper, Kim reminds him of a Nick Markakis-type, perhaps with a bit more power. Kim most recently posted a career-high walk rate in Korea with career-best power, and the projections seem him controlling the strike zone quite well, with just about average power, or slightly below that.
ESPN’s Eric Longenhagen (formerly of FanGraphs) notes Kim has some unique traits as a batter, with this to say:
“He can spray line drives to all fields despite the hips and feet of a pull-only hitter. That skill is the product of Kim’s natural swing path and his willingness to let pitches travel deep into the hitting zone before making contact. Because of Kim’s natural inclination to stride down the first-base line and open his hips early, scouts are concerned he may be vulnerable on the outer half of the strike zone and to off-speed stuff running away from him.”
Kim’s scouting reports defensively have varied — some have profiled him as a slighty below-average left fielder, some have profiled him as slightly above average. Point is, he shouldn’t be expected to land on either extreme end of the defensive spectrum, and “average in left field” seems like a wise assumption. Again, Steamer’s defensive projection is solely the result of the positional adjustment.
Eno Sarris profiled Maeda back in November, noting that Maeda is certainly a step or two below countrymen Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, especially with regards to the strikeout rates those pitchers posted in Japan. Maeda doesn’t throw very hard — the fastball is likely to sit around 90-93 — but he does appear to have excellent command, as his Japanese walk rates compare favorably to Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma, who have been very stingy with free passes in America.
Maeda relies heavily on his slider, which had plus movement based on PITCHf/x readings from Maeda’s 2013 appearance in San Francisco for the World Baseball Classic. Granted, that’s just one outing from nearly three years ago, and plenty of scouts have placed a back-end starter label on Maeda due to a lack of a consistent out-pitch.
However, Ben Badler of Baseball America’s most recent scouting report on Maeda, from this December, notes that Maeda has recently improved his changeup, flashing plus in front of scouts at the Premier 12 tournament in Taiwan last month, getting swings and misses with sink and fade in the low 80s.
If a team believes Maeda can take that above-average changeup he showed in the Premier 12 and carry it over into next season, that changes his projection, especially once he starts to throw it with more frequency. A pitcher with that repertoire, fastball command and track record could more comfortably profile as a No. 3 starter and increase his demand among teams looking to upgrade their rotation.
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