The Indians might be shopping some of their players. The newest rumor has the Red Sox interested in Shin-Soo Choo, whom the Indians have under team control for one more year of arbitration. Assuming the team won’t be in contention for the division title next year — they haven’t had a winning season since 2007 and, in related news, their starting staff has the second-worst FIP in the American League since that year — he seems to be an ideal player to trade away. Except for the fact that he owns a spotty track record and his value has been all over the place.
In the last three years, Choo has been worth as much as six wins over replacement and as little as one and half WAR. Of course, injury had a lot to do with that nadir. If you pro-rate his 2010 performance (never a good idea), you end up with 2.7 WAR, which settles in nicely next to last year’s 2.6 WAR. You still get that feeling that he’s not quite the player he was in 2009 and 2010. Maybe the 30-year-old outfielder is just post-peak.
His plate discipline over the last four years has been steady. He’s always walked more than 10% of the time, and he’s always struck out less than 22% of the time. With the exception of 2011, he’s always had a nice batting average. It’s been built on a high batting average on balls in play (.353 career), but with a ground-ball heavy approach and decent wheels, perhaps he’s deserved that BABIP. After all, using his 2012 batted ball mix produces a .321 xBABIP, and his actual .353 BABIP nailed his career number. He also stole 21 bases this year, on a 75% success rate, and he’s had a 75% success rate for his career. This much has been steady.
And yet there’s an obvious decline. In the last four years, his isolated slugging percentage has drooped from above .180 to about average (.159 last year). His baserunning numbers have been slipping, from a peak 4.6 runs above replacement to below replacement last season. And, after being a positive defensively for most of his career as a regular, Choo’s fielding numbers dropped precipitously last season.
One-year defensive metric samples are nothing to hang your hat on. On the other hand, the numbers are dovetailing to produce a picture of a player that has lost a step athletically. One reason that his baserunning numbers have been worse is that he’s taking the extra base less often. From BIS, we know that Choo went from second to home on a single nine of 21 times last season (43%). Before 2012, Choo went second to home on a single 53 of 77 times (69%). He saw a similar fall off on 1st to home on doubles, where he was 21 of 37 (57%) before 2012, and was just three of 10 in 2012. On the other hand, that’s small sample, and Choo also upped his percentage of making it from first to third on a single, for what it’s worth.
If you buy that his wheels are getting rustier, then you can add also that his arm is slowing down. That bad defensive number for his 2012 season showed bad work on deep balls (-11 on plus/minus), but he was bad there in 2010 as well. What really disappeared was his arm. From BIS:
From 2009-2011, Choo had 26 kills, which are throw outs on the basepaths without a cutoff man. That was tied with Jeff Francoeur for the most among right fielders. He did that in only 345 attempts. In other words, he threw out a runner without a cutoff man once for every 13.3 attempts to advance. In 2012, Choo had just four kills in 173 opportunities to advance, which is once for every 43.3 attempts. His arm component generated -1 Defensive Runs Saved. In 2010, he was +10 with his arm.
Speed is tied into power, that much became obvious when we did the isolated slugging aging curves and found that ISO peaks around 25. But if you take the batted ball distance on fly balls and home runs specifically, maybe you can isolate ‘power.’ Here are Choo’s average distances on those batted balls since 2009, in reverse chronological order, thanks to baseballheatmaps.com: 301.2′, 309′, 300.4′, 283.8′. That’s a bit of a drop-off.
You’re left with a player that has decent plate discipline, has reliably hit line drives over his career, has an approach that’s conducive to high batting averages, and still has league-average power. His possibly eroding athleticism has cost him some of that power, made him a worse defender, and slowed his wheels to the point that he’s probably a ‘just’ an above-average player.
Choo is in his last year of arbitration, and provided he gets a 50% raise or less on last year’s $4.9 million salary, he should probably have about $5 million in surplus value. According to Victor Wang’s research in 2008, that wouldn’t net the Indians a top 100 pitching prospect, and with inflation, it’s doubtful it would even get a John-Sickels Grade B pitching prospect anymore. Of course, the Indians have stated that a win is worth closer to eight or nine million, in which case they might be asking for a pitcher ranked in Baseball America’s top 100. Given the state of their starting rotation, a trade like that would probably still be a good idea.