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Park Chan-ho steals his way to the top

The starting infielder has become a crucial asset for the Tigers
Aug 03,2019
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Park Chan-ho of the Kia Tigers celebrates after hitting a triple during a game against the LG Twins at Jamsil Baseball Stadium in southern Seoul on June 21. [ILGAN SPORTS]
For the past four seasons, Park Hae-min of the Samsung Lions has led the KBO in stolen bases. But this year, there’s an unfamiliar face at the top of the standings - Park Chan-ho of the Kia Tigers.

As of Friday, Park has stolen 24 bases, two ahead of the runner-up, Kim Ha-seong of the Kiwoom Heroes, and eight more than Park Hae-min.

Despite leading the league in bases stolen, Park Chan-ho says he is not a sprinter.

“I’m not fast,” Park said. “When we’re just looking at speed, I’m nowhere close to the players that I’m competing against, like Kim Sang-su [of the Lions], Ko Jong-wook [of the SK Wyverns] and the four-time stolen bases leader, Park Hae-min.”

Surprisingly, even among the Tigers, Park said he is not considered fast. During spring training, the team held a 50-meter (164-foot) race and Park said he was nowhere close to being the fastest.

“Kim Joo-chan finished with the fastest time,” Park said. “I was slower than Choi Won-jun and wasn’t ranked.”

Judging by Park’s performance, successful base stealing isn’t all about speed. To get opportunities to steal a base, a batter has to first get on base. Then, a player needs to have a good sense of when to take off and be confident in when to slide, in addition to speed.

“I refer to the pitchers’ quick motion or their habits,” Park said. “I watch clips of the pitchers [before the game] and study their quick motions and pitches. But there are some pitchers whom I can’t even try to steal a base from.”

Park also mentioned getting help from Kim Jong-kook, the Tigers’ base running coach.

“We study together,” Park said. “I think the reason I am leading the KBO in bases stolen is 90 percent coach Kim and 10 percent my work.”

Park’s philosophy behind attempting to steal more bases is confusing the pitcher.

“There are multiple ways - a walk or a hit - to get on-base,” Park said. “But stealing bases can confuse the pitcher and the bench. Once I get on-base, [they are focused on whether I am going] to steal a base. This is something that can help [the team] positively.”

Having never won an individual title in his career, Park is hoping that the base-stealing award is in his grasp. Yet Park made it clear that he’s not going to push himself too much for an individual achievement.

Prior to this season, Park didn’t have a steady spot on the team’s roster, but he finally got the call in April after a number of veteran players faced injuries.

Throughout April, Park impressed the Tigers’ coaching staff with a 0.350 batting average, which was good enough for him to earn a spot in the starting lineup.

As an all-around utility player, Park has become a crucial part of the team, which is going through a generation change, this season. Although he has played most of his games as a third baseman, he has also appeared as a shortstop and a second baseman.

He also showed potential while at bat. After 88 games this season, Park has a 0.286 batting average with 36 RBIs.

Although a 0.286 batting average may not seem impressive at first, this is a great improvement for Park. From 2014, when he was drafted by the Tigers, until the 2016 season, he had a 0.169 batting average over 155 games.

During Park’s rookie season in 2014, he played in 17 games with a disappointing 0.091 batting average. He slightly improved in his second season, earning a 0.182 batting average over 69 games. But in 2016, his batting average decreased to 0.167 throughout 69 games.

Park’s improvements have gained him recognition among his teammates. When the Tigers’ Lee Bum-ho retired on July 13, he gave his number, 25, to Park.

Starting today, the KBO will play a two-game series rather than three for the rest of the season. The Tigers will host the NC Dinos in Gwangju. In Jamsil, the LG Twins will play against the Lions while the Heroes will host the KT Wiz at Gocheok.

Then, in Sajik, the Lotte Giants will begin a two-game series against the Doosan Bears and in Daejeon, the Hanwha Eagles will play against the Wyverns.

All games will start at 6 p.m.

BY LEE HYEONG-SEOK [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]