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A Look at Park Chan Ho’s Career

January 22, 2010

I remember being in LA during the height of Park Chan Ho‘s career and seeing PCH paraphernalia strewn across ktown. 10 year later, Park Chan Ho fever hasn’t died down. Even though he only pitched 1 game (which I attended), his contract sent a wave of pride to all NY Koreans when he signed with the Mets. Speaking a little baseball with my uncle over the holidays, I was horrified to hear he just follows whatever team Park plays for. (Our family grew up Mets or Yanks fans. Can’t believe he had the audacity to root for the Phils last season.)

I think this is common practice for many Koreans: follow wherever PCH goes. It’s pretty cute how the 1n2d team sees PCH as a national symbol and talk with reverence about his career. And it seems justified on the surface with his 120 wins, on his way to topping Hideo Nomo‘s record for most wins by an Asian player in MLB (123). But just like kdramas, you can’t tell quality by just looking at the surface, so let’s dig a little deeper.

(Disclaimer: I’m a total nerd when it comes to baseball and ascribe to the field of sabermetrics when looking at baseball stats. This post may bore most of you but oddly enough, it gets my blood pumping as much as an episode of MiSa. If you don’t like numbers, just skip below the table for regular english analysis.)

During the first PCH visit, Seung Gi asked a legitimate question, “How good is he?” And without hesitation, Kim C (baseball guru) turned to PCH’s win number as a way to justify Park’s elite status in the MLB. Unfortunately, this isn’t the best way to view a player’s true quality. There are way too many factors that determine whether a pitcher wins or looses (or even gets a decision) to use wins as a way to measure how well a pitcher pitches in a single game, let alone over a course of a career. Think of it as kdrama ratings. How often have you seen a sucky drama with high ratings, or a masterpiece with no viewers?

ERA is a better way to measure performance for pitchers, but is also a muddled stat because it doesn’t take into account adjustments for where you play (park effect) or the strength of the team’s defense. There are no such thing as a perfect stat, but there’s been a huge amount of progress in baseball stats in the past 10 years and here are a few that I’ve included in the chart below.

ERA+: ERA adjusted for park effects and normalized against the ERA of the pitcher’s league. A 100 means you’re league average. 130 is pretty awesome (probably top 10 or 15 in the league) and 80 is suckitude.
FIP: Fielding Independent Pitching. This stat measures only those things that a pitcher has control over: strikeouts, walks, homeruns, and hitting a batter. You can read the number as though it’s ERA, which means smaller is better.
VORP: Value Over Replacement Player. The number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute. Higher number is better.

So let’s try to make sense of the mumbo jumbo. Pretty much any baseball or PCH fan would know that he had his best years in LA, namely in 00 and 01, right before he became a free agent. He was arguably one of the top ten best pitchers in the NL in both years. His VORP was 9th and 10th in the league respectively in those 2 years. And his 133 ERA+ ranked 9th in 2000.

When he signed the big contract with TEX (5 years/$65MM), many wondered whether he was worthy of one of the largest contracts given to a pitcher. Dodgers Stadium had always been a pitcher’s park and many believed that Park’s stats had been aided by the pitcher friendly environment.

Unfortunately for Park, the move to the notoriously hitter friendly park in Arlington did not help his cause. Nor did the injuries that plagued him in what should have been the prime years of his career. You can easily see the huge dip in his ERA+ (all sub 100) and VORP during the Texas years. These ain’t pretty.

A trade to the Padres in 2005 (with its pitcher friendly PETCO) could have been a welcome change, but he had become a shell of LA self and did not succeed. Signing with the Mets in 2007 did not help his resurgence as he only pitched 1 game in the majors before moving around in the minors for the rest of the year (in NY and HOU).

2008 was an interesting year for Park, coming into spring training as a non-roster invitee. He pitched well but did not initially make the team, eventually making his way to the majors when injuries hit the Dodgers. He started a few games but mostly pitched out of the bullpen with quite a bit of success. And the success continued in 2009 with the Phillies as he became a vital part of their bullpen in their run for a (failed) second consecutive world series title.

The key to his success in 08-09 has been his ability to keep up his velocity and regain his strikeout levels by working out of the bullpen. He’s been especially effective against right-handed batters, which can be a great weapon when coming out of the bullpen. The average, OPS (one base percentage + slugging), and sOPS (which basically compares OPS to the league average with lower number being better for pitchers) are all against, meaning this is what the hitters produced when facing Park. As you can see, Park was quite good against righties in both years and pitched at worst league average against lefties in 2009.

This should be great news for Park. He should be looking at these stats with his agent and working on his pitch (pun intended), especially to teams needing pitchers out of the bullpen who can get out right handers. Unfortunately, the latest news from the Park camp is that he wants to be a starter somewhere, which greatly narrows the number of teams who will be willing to offer him a contract for 2010. (Contrary to Ho Dong’s comment in the episode, Park is a free agent and most likely will not return to Philadelphia unless he agrees to pitch out of the bullpen.)

Now to go back to Seung Gi’s question: How good is he? Well, he was great for 2 years (00-01), good for 2 years (97-98), solid for 2 years (08-09), and sucky for 6 years (02-07), a lot of it due to injury, but sucky none the less. The pride of Korea is still standing on the laurels of things accomplished a decade ago. As much as he wants to capture the glories of his youth, a 37 year old pitcher needs to understand his limitations and figure out a way to bring value to his team. The good news is that the 2 solid years have been the last 2 years of his career, giving him hope for a final push at the end. I hope that Park will get some sound advice and will eventually sell his strengths (reliever with ability to spot start) for a incentive laden contract in 2010.

As Korea’s best in MLB to date, I’d like for him to finish with a dash of success, rather than be remembered as the nickname given by angry Texas fans, “Oh No Park.”

Stats via Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. ditdut permalink
    January 24, 2010 3:40 am

    Hehehe, when you said you were a nerd when it comes to baseball, you really are!

    Frankly, I didn’t understand a lot of the stat and jargons you mentioned. I did wonder during the first visit of PCH and why he seemed to attain a god like status with the members and the viewers. It’s good to read an objective writeup here. Thanks!

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