Friday, November 8, 2013
Half-full, half-empty: Shin-Soo Choo
By David Schoenfield
Let's continue our half-full, half-empty series by looking at Shin-Soo Choo, who had a big season for the Reds in 2013, hitting .285/.423/.462 with 21 home runs, 112 walks and 107 runs, ranking second in the National League in runs, walks and on-base percentage. Isn't that the definition of a great leadoff hitter?
He's 31 (32 next July) and while the Reds played him in center field, most teams will be looking at him as a corner outfielder.
While Choo has enough power to hit lower in the order, he has thrived in the leadoff spot since moving there while with Cleveland during the 2012 season. Choo had a .432 OBP from the leadoff spot with the Reds, and among players who batted at least 200 times in the leadoff position in 2013 only Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler were also above .370; only nine all told were above .350.
The thing to like about Choo is the broad range of skills: He's a .288 career hitter, draws walks, has some power (20-plus home runs three times), some speed (20-plus steals four times) and possesses an above-average throwing arm. His WAR in 2013 was 4.2 -- he's been as high as 6.0 with Cleveland -- but that was dragged down by subpar range in center field. Baseball Info Solutions credited him with -18 Defensive Runs Saved -- nearly two wins' worth of bad defense. Move him to a corner-outfield spot and his defensive numbers likely won't rate so poorly and his WAR should increase.
Choo's numbers weren't just a Cincinnati thing, either. He had a .399 OBP and 11 home runs on the road.
Here are a couple of similar players. Kirby Puckett played his age-29 and age-30 seasons in 1989 and 1990, in a similar run-scoring era. They aren't exact matches -- Puckett hit for a higher average but walked much less -- but had a similar all-around game with some power and some speed. Choo was worth 7.6 WAR the past two seasons, Puckett 7.7 at the same age. From 31 to 35 (until his career-ending eye injury), Puckett averaged 3.9 WAR per season, a stretch that included two strike-shortened seasons). If Choo can average 3.5 to 4.0 WAR per season over the next five years, you're looking at a dollar-per-win contract worth over $100 million.
Another best-case scenario: Johnny Damon. Again, not a perfect match, but a player with a similar broad range of skills. At ages 29 and 30, Damon was worth 7.7 WAR. From 31 to 35 he averaged 3.7 WAR per season. At 36, he left the Yankees and played with the Tigers, accumulating 3.0 WAR. Using those two examples, Choo looks like a good bet to have continued success during the five-year contract he'll likely receive.
Choo did have terrific season at the plate, but there were a few red flags in the numbers. He did benefit from Cincinnati, hitting .318 there as opposed to .251 on the road. His career-high OBP was also boosted by a couple of factors that may not be replicated: His walk rate spiked, from about 12 percent in his career to 15.7 percent; and he was hit by 26 pitches, most in the majors, after never having been hit more than 17 times in a season. It's certainly a skill he has, but the 26 number seems a little extreme.
Perhaps most importantly, Choo can't hit left-handers. He hit .215 with no home runs against them in 2013; his OBP was respectable against them thanks to 13 HBPs and a decent walk rate, but this is a player who arguably should be platooned. You want to pay $100 million for a platoon player?
Then there's his defense. He's no center fielder but his defensive metrics with the Indians in 2012 while playing right field weren't much better at -12 Defensive Runs Saved. It's possible that Choo just isn't a plus defender anywhere any longer, and imagine what he'll be at 34 or 35.
Examples of players to make you worry about Choo moving forward
how about Garret Anderson? He had a 7.8 WAR at 29 and 30; he averaged 1.5 WAR from 31 to 35. Or J.D. Drew. Like Choo, a balanced player who drew a lot of walks, signed with Boston as a free agent at the same age Choo is now. From 31 to 35 he averaged 2.3 WAR per season; not terrible, but not the All-Star-caliber player you want for $100 million.
Choo's ability to get on base probably means no contract will be a complete disaster assuming he stays reasonably healthy. But it's also likely 2013 was his career year at the plate and his declining defense could be a huge problem in a couple of years.
What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?