SURPRISE, Ariz. – A leadoff hitter must be a tone-setter. He’s the first batter to step in the box against the opposing club’s starter and sends a signal as to what the approach will be that night. He represents the first opportunity to create a run-scoring opportunity.
That first at-bat was a huge reason the Texas Rangers paid handsomely – seven years and $130 million – to acquire left fielder Shin-Soo Choo, a player they identified as the one that made the most sense even before the offseason began.
Texas was 59-17 when it scored first in 2013. But it means the Rangers scored first only 76 times. That was 10 fewer runs than every team that made the postseason last year. Scoring first matters, which means creating early chances and cashing them in.
Choo’s job is to help create those chances and be an example for others in the lineup to follow. Texas wasn't patient enough last season, and hitting coach Dave Magadan stresses discipline at the plate and getting into hitting counts. Sometimes that means seeing pitches, other times it means using aggression. Choo has shown an ability to understand how to handle that, and the Rangers hope by simply watching him other players in the lineup will learn from him.
Choo was one of the best leadoff hitters in the majors the past two seasons. All the Rangers want is that stout on-base percentage – no qualified leadoff hitter had a better percentage the last two years than Choo’s .415 – to continue.
Choo admits that he’s “human” and that some pressure comes with the big contract. But he vows it won’t change who he is or his approach at the plate.
“I feel the same,” Choo said Friday in his first spring training session with the media. “I’m the same person. I do the same routine every day, the same approach. I just do my baseball and keep my same approach and good things happen.
“I talk to myself: ‘Choo, you play Shin-Soo Choo style.’"
So how does Choo consistently get on base? By any means possible. He had 107 walks when batting leadoff, a whopping 42 more than the next qualified No. 1 hitter in the order. He was hit by 26 pitches, more than anyone else in the big leagues. Over the past two seasons, he’s seen an average of 4.17 pitchers per plate appearance. No leadoff hitter with at least 600 plate appearances in the top spot has been more patient.
It’s that last stat – working a pitcher and fighting to get the count where Choo wants it – that manager Ron Washington says is the reason for Choo’s success in the leadoff spot.
“That’s the key to a leadoff hitter -- seeing pitches,” Washington said. “He sees a lot of pitches. That’s important. It’s not anything that he’s just developed, that’s the way he was in his career. The pitches that he decides he wants to attack early, he usually does something with them.”
Choo said one reason he had a better season in 2013 was his two-strike approach, something he focused on this time last year in particular. He saw modest improvement on his two-strike batting average, but it was on 3-2 counts where he performed much better. He hit .279 on full-count pitches in 2013, up from .191 in 2012 and .171 in 2011.
“Always a problem for me on 3-2 counts was strikeouts,” Choo said. “Last year, I had a really good approach with 3-2 counts that I can share with other players, especially here young players like (Jurickson) Profar, (Leonys) Martin. We’re in the same hitting group, so I share with those guys.”
That sharing part is critical, too. It’s something Washington has talked about ever since the Rangers signed Choo.
“He’s one of those guys that has makeup like guys from the old school,” Washington said. “He goes up there and has an at-bat and comes back to the dugout and talks about it. That’s what I remember as a player that leadoff guys used to do. They would come back and talk about what they had seen, what the guy had, what he didn’t have, what not to look for, what to look for. And Choo is one of those guys. He will have an effect.”