Shin-Soo Choo is Under-Rated Again!!

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.

  1. You should really check out the leaderboard. There are lots of negative numbers; Luis Valbuena is particularly delightful []

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Dandy Marte I like that! Enjoy ’em while you have him.

  • nj0

    “Acta moved him to the leadoff spot, almost for no reason at all.”
    Wouldn’t say that. Even during his down year he had a .344 OBP which would put him as one of our top guys this year. The move could also been seen as an attempt to inspire confidence in a guy who has been struggling.

  • WFNYJon

    Good point. I wrote about batting orders several years back and the simulations I ran then suggested Choo was our best leadoff man:
    So “almost for no reason” is a stretch, you’re right. Though he WAS struggling, which is what I was trying to drive at.

  • Scott

    Jon, is there a advanced metric that shows the advantage of combining multiple high WAR guys on a team vs. in 2010 case, 1 high WAR with a lot of negatives? Would Choo’s WAR be higher if he was with other high WAR guys? I guess I’m asking if Choo’s 2010 WAR is even more impressive that he was on a crappy team?

  • mgbode

    “By September I was fully expecting locusts.”

    Lost opportunity to remind us gleefully of the October midges plague. Otherwise, well done as usual.

  • nj0

    True. He was struggling.

    Joe Maddon often bats non-lead off types who are struggling in the leadoff spot (Carlos Pena this year, Longoria before). There was an article about it over at Fangraphs a couple weeks back.

    Maddon quote- “I explained to Longo I wanted him to go out there today, work good at-bats, get on base, use all of his baseball skills and help us win a ballgame. And really try to give him a different outlook. Hopefully he’s going to have some fun with it and see where it takes him.”

    Wonder if Acta was trying to do the same thing? He’s kind of like Madden-lite. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • WFNYJon

    Nah, WAR is context-independent. Choo’s WAR those seasons would’ve been the same were he on a contending team. But it is really impressive that he accounted for 60% of the team’s value. That’s just insane to me.
    If you’re looking for context-dependent production, take a look at “win-probability added”. It’s scaled a little differently–basically wins above average rather than wins above replacement–but it includes all the context of game situations. I wrote about WPA a long time ago here:

  • Hypno_Toad

    He did strike out Nick Swisher that one time. So there’s that….

  • MyTribe

    And Santana should be batting second, the Maddon approach makes huge sense.

  • MyTribe

    Not having a baseball IQ that grows is hurting LaPorta. Not being able to genuinely hit the other way hurts him as well.

  • Lee

    Jon, as a Korean fan in here Korea, I’d like let you know some info. Choo usually write a short memo about his statue during the season. Here is what I know. Yes he was struggled early and to make worse he hit by pitched again in Mid April in game with W/Sox almost same point in last year. He wrote that after took mri, there was a minor crack on the thumb. I think that it took a month to recover fully. His weak point is inside pitch around belt line with good command. Facing lefty or righty it doesn’t matter and he knew it so opposing pitchers pitches inside even risking the long ball. I think he’ll have dealt with that. I mean lot of hit by pitch that worries me most. Also in last Jan.2011 when he signed one year contract not multi years, the real reason was to watch until end of 2013 how the team is rebuild during that time. Although he said many times he want stay and contribute, he also expressed like to play in contending team. Money is not everything for him. I hope that Choo will contribute as a player as he said but also Dolan invest more money to rebuild as a contending Indians too. Boras is just represent Choo for his best interest. He also wrote the main reason to play as a leadoff was a his obp data after interview with Acta. Acta want his consistent obp first that time. Go Tribe!