Shin-Soo Choo’s Lost Season

Let us, for a moment, imagine a wacky, nonsensical alternate reality MLB. In this alternate reality MLB, players do not agree upon a salary before the season begins. Rather, they are compensated for their yearly production. Let’s say that production is measured by WAR. The generally accepted market value of a win is approximately $6 million/WAR.

During Shin-Soo Choo‘s prime in Cleveland from 2008-10, he was a 5-win player. Last year, for Cincinnati, he was a 5-win player. At Choo’s best, and his most recent prior to signing a big free agent contract this offseason, he would have earned $30M per season for his production. That’s a high number! That’s a lot of production.

In this year’s wacky, nonsensical alternate reality MLB, Choo would still be waiting to earn his first dollar. By the end of the season, he’d be lucky to scrape together a few million. As of about a week ago, he would have actually owed the Texas Rangers organization a million or two.

Thankfully for Choo, he plays in the real world MLB, where he’s going to make $14 million this year. And he’ll make that much again next season and then significantly more than that for five more seasons. The Rangers signed Choo to a seven-year, $130 million contract in the offseason, expecting 4-win player for at least a couple more years. What they’ve gotten is exactly replacement level production. Choo’s WAR is currently 0.0.

Back in December, after Choo signed, Jeff Sullivan wrote about Choo’s platoon split. This has long been known about Choo. Over the course of his career, Choo has been Ryan Braun (148 wRC+) against right-handed pitchers and Gregor Blanco (92 wRC+) against left-handed pitchers. That is a pretty drastic difference. The Rangers knew Choo couldn’t hit lefties. The Rangers knew Choo couldn’t play the outfield very well. The Rangers knew Choo’s speed would soon begin to decline as he descended into his thirties. Yet the Rangers gave Choo $130 million on his ability to hit right-handed pitching as well as any player in baseball.

Shin-Soo Choo still isn’t hitting left-handed pitching. That hasn’t changed. Something else has. His wRC+ against righties is 102. Choo signed a mega contract based on his ability to do one thing extremely well and he hasn’t done that one thing all year. Therefore, he’s been essentially valueless all year.

This poses a lot of questions. Which make me want to find answers.

Choo’s batting average on balls in play this year is .309. That’s pretty normal, even a little high compared to the league average. But Choo has never been average when it comes to turning balls in play into hits. His career .346 BABIP over 4,000 plate appearances is one of the highest in MLB history. That makes his seemingly normal .309 BABIP actually become a noticeable outlier. Choo has been able to sustain such a high BABIP throughout the course of his career thanks to a combination of speed, a high line drive rate and a penchant for hitting to all fields. The line drive rate is down a tick from where it’s been the previous few seasons, but still at a respectable 20% that’s close to his career average. Choo’s speed score this year is a career low and below league average for the first time ever, but he’s also putting together his best baserunning season in five years, so go figure. That leaves one part of the equation:

choospray

Throughout his career, Choo has been one of the most prolific doubles hitters in the game. He’s accomplished this largely by going the other way. Last season, Choo hit 19 opposite field doubles. This season, Choo has just seven. And this comes after a move to the Ballpark in Arlington, which is more conducive to doubles in all parts of the park than his previous home in Cincinnati. But it’s not just the doubles. Choo’s home run power to the opposite field is notably absent in those spray charts and you can see his singles cluster shift drastically towards right field. Choo just appears to be losing his ability to hit to the opposite field. Which, combined with declining speed that won’t come back, makes Choo’s future as a .350 BABIP hitter seem bleak.

My first inclination for why Choo might be losing his opposite field stroke was plate coverage. I decided to look up his slugging percentage on pitches over the outer-third, inner-third and middle of the strike zone against right-handed pitching from last season compared to this season. I expected to find a drop in production on the outer-third. What I found was both different and perhaps more revealing:

SLG% vs. RHP
2013 2014
Outside .613 .559
Middle .803 .333
Inside .529 .435

The numbers are down across the board, yes, but it’s not outside pitches where Choo is struggling. It’s the ones right down the middle. In fact, Choo’s .250 slugging percentage on pitches right down the heart of the plate is only better than Zack Cozart‘s .214 and Nick Castellanos‘ .240. Cozart has never really hit and Castellanos is a rookie with holes in his swing. Choo is an established veteran with an impressive offensive track record.

Going hand-in-hand with Choo’s inability to hit pitches down the middle are his struggles against fastballs. Last year: .393 average, .338 isolated slugging percentage against heaters. This year: .256 average, .163 (!) ISO.

These are red flags for someone with Choo’s track record and consistency. A guy like Choo shouldn’t be struggling against the types of pitches he is struggling against. Fastballs and pitches right down the middle are the easiest pitches to hit and Choo suddenly can’t hit them. It’s one thing when a young guy is still trying to figure out how to repeat his mechanics. It’s another thing when you’re dealing with someone of Choo’s stature. The first thing that comes to mind when one tries to explains something like this is injury. Clearly, something is throwing off the mechanics that Choo has proven the ability to repeat for the previous six years. He didn’t just forget his swing. He could be playing through an injury. Or he could just be aging faster than expected and is involuntarily compensating for a deterioration in some part of his body, thus throwing off his swing. These are the type of risks you take when you sign guys on the wrong side of 30 to seven-year contracts.

It was already unlikely that Choo was going to live up to his seven-year, $130 million dollar contract. A replacement level season in his first year all but guarantees it. At this point, it would almost be better for Texas if Choo was trying to fight through an injury this season and not just slowly deteriorating. It was no secret that the Rangers took on one of the worst contracts in baseball this offseason when they acquired Prince Fielder and it doesn’t look any better one neck surgery later. If this version of Shin-Soo Choo is anything like what we can expect moving forward, the once-powerhouse Rangers could find themselves with two of the very worst contracts in baseball on the books through 2020, a best player going on 36 years of age and seemingly an entire pitching staff of rebuilt arms and knees. An unenviable position, to say the least.



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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