I’ve made this point before, but the first half of the 2010 Indians’ season will forever be what I define as the “low-point” of the current rebuild-thingy. People remember the Sabathia trade in 2008, but forget that Cliff Lee won a Cy Young. People remember the Victor and Cliff trades of 2009, which were admittedly heart-breaking, but they also meant we had entered the season with two great players.
But when the 2010 season began, Jake Westbrook was our best pitcher. Lou Marson was our starting catcher. This team featured the talents of Mark Grudzielanek and Jayson Nix and Russell Branyan and Dandy Marte and Chris Giminez and a shortstop called Anderson Hernandez. Austin Kearns got 301 plate appearances, and judging by wins above replacement, he was the fourth most valuable position player on the team. This was a stinking pile of “baseball players”.
There was a bright spot though.
After a breakout 2009 campaign that featured a .300/.394/.489 line, Shin-Soo Choo proved he wasn’t a fluke in 2010 by bashing his way to a .300/.401/.484 line with 22 home runs, 90 RBIs, and 22 stolen bases. On top of that, he racked up 14 assists in right field, demonstrating to any who deigned to pay attention that his arm was just as dangerous as his bat.
According to Fangraphs, in 2010, the Indians’ position players managed to produce a total of 10 wins above replacement. Which is pathetic. Shin-Soo Choo was responsible for six of those wins.1 That team should have been historically bad, and could have easily lost 100 games if not for the Herculean efforts of Choo. Averaging the Fangraphs numbers and the baseball-reference WAR figures, Choo was the 9th most valuable position player in the AL in 2010.
Which made his crummy 2011 a real shame. Not only was Choo hurt for a good part of last season, but even when he wasn’t hurt he was struggling. He played in only 85 games, and had a .259/.344/.390 line. Both his power and his batting eye seemed lost (not unlike a certain Senor Santana we might be discussing soon). Nothing in his game was working for him, and then he had the DUI and then Jonathan Sanchez went and broke his hand and then it just seemed to be getting biblical. By September I was fully expecting locusts.
Frankly, that’s the kind of season that can ruin a player—destroy his confidence to the point that he can’t ever recover. Say what you will about Matt LaPorta (I’ve said worse, I assure you), but I don’t think it’s entirely out of the question that after what he’s been through with the Indians, he’ll never be able to regain the confidence he had as a young player. At least not with this organization. He’s been traumatized, and yes, now I’m psychoanalyzing. I’ll stop.
I was worried that the same might happen to Choo after the nightmarish 2011 season he endured. I was even more worried when I saw the way 2012 was starting for him. Through May 14th, Choo was hitting .236/.362/.330 (.692 OPS). He had one home run, seven doubles, 27 strikeouts, only 16 walks, and 13 RBI. I was ascared that he was done, but also pretty happy we hadn’t signed him to a Hafner-esque extension in the off-season.
But then, slowly, the light started to go on. Acta moved him to the leadoff spot, almost for no reason at all. By the end of May, he’d hit a couple more home runs and six more doubles. Then he took off in June, hitting .338/.386/.585 from June 1st through last weekend’s series with the Rays.
For the season, Choo is now hitting .297/.384/.484, good for an .868 OPS. He’s back to playing stellar right field, and limiting the running game with his arm. He’s been successful on 70% of his stolen base attempts, and now leads the team in hits (91) runs scored (56).
In short, it would seem that Shin-Soo Choo is back to who he used to be: a really good baseball player who tends to fly under the radar. But why does he fly under the radar?
It’s a pretty well-accepted principle that in baseball (and probably in life) our eye is attracted most immediately to the outliers. 50 home runs!! 120 RBI!! 40 stolen bases!!
Shin-Soo Choo has never been that type of player. There is no one thing that he’s better at than everyone else. But when you put together all that he does, you realize how valuable his consistency really is. Choo is back to being a great player again, and that’s good news for this team. We’re going to need it.
The question, of course, is whether investing in this reborn version of Choo makes sense from the Indians’ perspective. In a couple of weeks, Choo turns 30. He’s currently scheduled to the hit free agency market after the 2013 season. Scott Boras doesn’t believe in hometown discounts. It’s possible we’re enjoying Choo’s penultimate season on the North Shore, and it’s also possible that that’s not the worst thing in the world.
It doesn’t really matter right now though. Because right now he’s back to being under-appreciated again. And I have to admit: that might be where I like him best.