South Korea beat Taiwan 9-3 Friday in the Asian Games baseball final. Fans of South Korean baseball are celebrating, but Cleveland fans are probably excited, too, as this likely exempts outfielder Shin-Soo Choo from his mandatory two years of South Korean military service. That’s obviously good news for the Cleveland franchise, as he’s been their best player the last couple of seasons. It is also great for Choo himself, given his age and his arbitration status. During the 2010 MLB playoffs, certain writers on Twitter made comments that went something like this: “[Player X] prolly made himself $15 million dollars with that home run,” which led to much parody among the snarkier circles of the Nerdosphere. It was all in good fun, as such claims were more than a bit silly. However, in Choo’s case he may very well have made tens of millions of dollars with this one game.
I’m not going to speculate about other avenues Choo might have had available to him if South Korea hadn’t won. Yes, Choo, who is 28 now, could probably come back at 30 and resume his major league career. But there is a pretty big difference between a 28 year-old and a 30 year-old in baseball terms even without considering the rust that would likely develop in his time away. It would also effect Choo’s potential future earnings down the road, as becomig a free agent at 31 (as he will now) gives him two more years of earning before he hangs it up. Finally, this is be a big year for Choo because he is now eligible for salary arbitration.
While calling a player “underrated” is a tired mode of expression, it is undoubtedly true in Choo’s case. Despite a relative lack attention from the national press, over the past three seasons, Choo has been the sixth most valuable outfielder in baseball, and that’s with him playing just over half a season in 2008. He has been the fourth most valuable outfielder over the last two seasons behind only Carl Crawford, Matt Hollilday, and Ben Zobrist (a part-time outfielder getting most of his value from 2009). Given the contract Holliday received last off-season and what Crawford is likely to get this time out, Choo’s situation looks that much more interesting.
Indeed, if Choo was available, it is likely that he would be the second-most in demand outfielder on the free agent market. Crawford is rightly seen as number one, with Jayson Werth some distance (depending on whom you ask) behind him at number two. Werth is probably a superior defender to the average-ish Choo despite Werth’s down season according to UZR. But while Werth just out-hit Choo this past season (150 wRC+ to 147 wRC+), Choo out-hit Werth in each of the prior two seasons, Choo plays in a less hitter-friendly park and is about three years younger. If forced to choose, I’d take Choo over Werth.
Comparisons aside, what would Choo be worth on the open market? Using CHONE’s August 28 update, his “true talent” wOBA was estimated at .372, or about 28 runs above average per 700 plate appearances. Assuming average defense plus 28 runs offensive minus 7.5 runs positional adjustment plus 25 runs for AL replacement level, that’s about 4.2 wins over 150 games. Taking off half a win for aging and attrition, that puts him between 3.5 and 4 wins for 2011. Taking into account 10% a season salary inflation, half-a-win a year decline, and a conservative $4.5 million dollars per marginal win open market cost, at 3.5 wins for 2011, we’d expect Choo to get something around three years and $44 million, four years and 55 million, or five years and and $65 million as a free agent. Those projections are approxiamate, but they are also relatively conservative.
However, Choo is not a free agent. He is going into his first season of salary arbitration, in which players are get on average about 40% of what they would be worth on the open market. So rather than $15 million dollars, at 3.5 wins we’d estimate he’ll get six million. In his second arbitration season (following the rough inflation and decline curves from above), he’d get nine million. In the third season, about eleven million. Altogether, that’s an estimate of about $26 million dollars assuming Choo’s future is “average” (with all the uncertainty and lack of specificity that implies) and he goes year-to-year with arbitration.
I’ve painted an overly simplistic picture, of course. Choo could have come back after two seasons and still made some money. I’m not sure how the arbitration process would handle that. Now that they know he will be back next season, Cleveland can also try to buy out his arbitration years for less money (but more security for Choo). It is doubtful that the Indians will be able to buy out any of his free agent seasons given that Choo’s agent rarely agrees to something like that. So “made $26 million dollars” is more of an attention-grabber than the true conclusion of this analysis. Nonetheless, this is probably just about as close as one can get to saying that a player made millions of dollars based on one game.
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