By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, March 22 (Yonhap) -- If you went into a science lab and created a perfect cleanup hitter, you'd get someone like Park Byung-ho, a slugger with Popeye-on-spinach forearms who launches moon shots, consistently puts the ball in play and gets on base 45 percent of the time.
It is not surprising that Park spent his last season batting fourth as one of the most-feared home run hitters in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO).
This year, however, Park is in for a change, with a move to an unfamiliar spot in the batting order of his team, the Kiwoom Heroes.
Park will no longer be the team's everyday cleanup hitter this year. Manager Jang Jung-suk tinkered with his batting order by putting Park, a two-time 50-homer man, in the No. 2 spot during the preseason. And with the regular season scheduled to begin Saturday, Park thinks he'll be batting anywhere between the second and fourth spots in what should be a deep Heroes lineup.
It may seem too drastic of a change for Park, who batted cleanup in all but four of his 483 plate appearances last year. He had pinch-hit appearances in the seventh and eighth spots.
Hardly anything seems to faze Park, even a move out of his comfort spot. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the KBO media day Thursday, Park said he'll fully embrace the switch.
"I'll do whatever the team wants me to do," Park said. "Based on data, we may see some changes to our lineup, and I'll prepare myself accordingly. I could be batting second or third, and I know I won't be hitting cleanup every day."
"The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball," a groundbreaking book on statistical analysis in baseball, noted the No. 2 hitter comes to bat in situations as important as the No. 3 hitter, and does so more often. It makes more sense to give the team's best hitters more opportunities to bat in crucial situations.
And KBO teams have tried moving their big hitters to the No. 2 spot recently, following the trend in Major League Baseball (MLB) where former MVPs, like Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Kris Bryant and Giancarlo Stanton have all been No. 2 hitters.
But Park's move to that spot has sent by far the biggest shockwave throughout the KBO. He is the only KBO player with back-to-back 50-homer seasons, having eclipsed the half-century mark in 2014 and 2015. The two-time KBO MVP spent 2016 and 2017 in the Minnesota Twins organization, and rejoined the Heroes last season, when he belted out 43 homers in only 113 games. That's almost a 55-home run pace in a full 144-game season.
His RBI totals will likely suffer if he gets a bulk of his at-bats at the No. 2 spot, putting his streak of five consecutive 100-RBI seasons in jeopardy. But Park has never been the one to bring up specific numbers when discussing his goals for each season.
"My biggest goal this year is to play in every game without getting injured," said Park, who missed 31 games in 2018.
He said there isn't that much of a difference between batting cleanup and batting elsewhere in the lineup. In games in which he bats second, Park will be guaranteed to get his first plate appearance in the first inning, something that he said could affect his pre-game routine and preparations. But once the first inning is out of the way, it's still the same ball game.
One other change for Park for this season has been with his swing. He's been trying to open up his front foot upon landing a bit so he can drive inside pitches better.
Once he's inside the batter's box, though, Park is trying to keep his head clear of whatever changes he's trying to make.
"For now, I am not thinking too much about my swing," he said. "I am just letting my body react to pitches."
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