FORT MYERS, FLA. – ByungHo Park is hitting for power, drawing walks and striking out less.
Or, the person wearing Park’s No. 52 jersey is. The Twins might have to conduct an identity check to make sure it’s really him if this keeps up.
The Park they know was overmatched last year as he attempted to make the jump from the Korean Leagues. He was sent to Class AAA Rochester in June.
The Park they know was taken off the 40-man roster two weeks before this year’s camp opened to make room for Matt Belisle — which means Park cleared waivers and no team wanted him.
Park, however, is making the Twins look differently at him this spring. He enters Friday’s game against the Rays batting .400 with three home runs and six RBI in Grapefruit League play. He has walked four times and struck out six after walking one time and striking out 17 times last spring training. He leads the Twins with a whopping .840 slugging percentage.
“His at-bats have been fairly consistent,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “We haven’t seen that huge expansion of the zone or the panic. There seems to be a lot more calmness to his at-bats and trust to his approach a little bit, which is obviously an important component to have.”
On Wednesday, Park lined a single to center, flew out to right and lined out to short in three at-bats, not looking out of his league as he did a year ago.
“It’s absolutely different,” Park said through an interpreter. “The last year I tried to acclimate to so many different things outside of baseball, but the main thing now this year is I can focus on baseball with the good feeling and confidence at the plate.”
Before the 2016 season, the Twins paid a $12.85 million posting fee for the rights to Park, who had mashed 105 home runs over the previous two seasons for the Nexen Heroes of the KBO. He was fine for 24 big-league games, batting .268 with seven home runs and 12 RBI. Over the next 38 games, he batted .143 with five homers and 12 RBI. He began to start his bat sooner to get to major league fastballs, then became vulnerable to breaking pitches.
The Twins sent him to Rochester on July 1. Park lasted 31 games there, hitting .224 with 10 homers and 19 RBI, before landing on the DL for the rest of the season because of right wrist tendinitis.
Park ended up having surgery in August to repair a tendon in his right middle finger that caused him pain while swinging the bat.
It’s hard to swing a bat with hand problems, and crushing baseballs is the one thing Park is known for in Korea.
“At this time I feel no pain in the wrist and where I had the surgery,” said Park, who hit a 462-foot home run on April 16 against the Angels, the fifth-longest homer hit at Target Field at the time. “Especially at the plate, I have no problem when I swing. So I feel really comfortable and confident.”
His improved strikeout-to-walk rate suggests that he’s healthy and not worried about catching up to major league pitching.
Park has put himself in the race to be the Twins’ designated hitter when the team breaks camp. Kennys Vargas, his main competition, went 1-for-13 before leaving to join Team Puerto Rico for the World Baseball Classic.
The Twins will likely use Joe Mauer at DH — with Park or Vargas filling in at first base — several times during the season. Miguel Sano could factor there as well. The Twins are going to need someone to play first when Mauer is the DH, meaning either Park or Vargas has to be on the roster.
The way things are going, Park is going to get a chance to show the Twins who he really is.
“We all talked about the optimism to him coming back here and that he would adjust, know the routine and what is going on here,” Molitor said. “He is getting an opportunity to get a lot of at-bats with Kennys being gone.”