The Shin-Soo Choo Experiment

Tuesday evening, several eyebrows were raised when the Indians, Reds, and Diamondbacks pulled off a three-way blockbuster. Some raised their eyebrows because the Diamondbacks dealt a top pitching prospect for a shortstop who might never hit. Some raised their eyebrows because the Indians managed to get that pitching prospect for one year of an outfielder. Some raised their eyebrows because everyone else around them was raising their eyebrows and they didn’t want to feel excluded. And some raised their eyebrows because the Reds landed Shin-Soo Choo with intentions of playing him in center field. Choo, without question, fits the Reds’ need for a leadoff hitter. The other fit is a more curious fit.

Everybody knew the Reds were in the market for a leadoff hitter and a center fielder. They failed to land Ben Revere, and they failed to land guys like Angel Pagan and Shane Victorino. So in finding their leadoff hitter and center fielder, the Reds acquired a leadoff hitter and right fielder who they plan to move over. Obviously, things could change between now and the start of the year, and things could still change after the start of the year, but ask the Reds today and they’d tell you that Choo will play in the middle. Choo is 30 years old, and he’s played in the middle for all of 83 innings. He hasn’t done it once since 2009.

And oh, by the way, last year Choo’s UZR was godawful. That was in right, and anecdotal evidence backs it up, for whatever that might be worth. This isn’t quite like when the Mariners turned Franklin Gutierrez from a corner outfielder into a center fielder. Gutierrez’s numbers in the corners were outstanding, and he always looked like he belonged in the middle. Choo is more of a stretch. Where Gutierrez was a natural fit, Choo is kind of just being jammed in there.

But, okay, it’s happening, so we should consider how this might go. I shouldn’t need to tell you that it’s uncommon for players to move up the defensive spectrum in the major leagues. Defense is usually at or around its best when a player first breaks in. Gutierrez moved up, but that was obvious. Miguel Cabrera just moved up last year, but he at least had a lot of experience at third base earlier in his career. Michael Young moved from second base to shortstop in 2004, and he remained a shortstop for a while, but Michael Young has never been revered for his defense. What the Reds are doing is unusual.

Said Walt Jocketty:

“We think [Choo]’s a great athlete, and he still runs well from side to side, and we think that in our ballpark, he’ll do fine in center field,” Jocketty said.

Let’s randomly select a highlight from Shin-Soo Choo’s MLB.com player page. Here’s a running catch that Choo managed to pull down:


That’s not bad. That’s also a selected highlight, but it’s not like Choo is Jonny Gomes. Gomes wouldn’t have been able to make a catch like that. Choo has his athleticism, which you could infer from his 21 steals. What he doesn’t have is blazing speed. People who watch the Indians on a regular basis accuse him of often running poor routes or getting poor jumps. We have to consider that we do have defensive measurements of Choo, and last year said measurements were deeply critical.

But then, what do we know about our advanced defensive measurements? We know not to believe too strongly in single-year data. Over three years, Choo comes out at -4 by Defensive Runs Saved, and -9 by UZR. That’s in right field, and it’s not catastrophic. Of course, Choo is also only aging, and thus getting slower. By the minute! By the second! And moving from right to center is hard. People don’t really do it much.

Jocketty noted that the Reds play in a smaller ballpark. A few people have pointed this out, as a reason why Choo might not be a failure. From a few years ago at The Book Blog, we can find square-foot measurements of ballpark fair territory. At the time, Great American Ball Park was the fourth-smallest, between U.S. Cellular and Citizens Bank. Interestingly, Progressive Field was second-smallest. Great American Ball Park had 89% the area of Coors Field. It had roughly 97% the area of the median. There’s no question that the Reds play in a smaller park, and here are all the left-center, center, and right-center dimensions, as pulled from Wikipedia:

Team Left-Center Center Right-Center
ARI 374 407 374
ATL 380 401 390
BAL 364 400 373
BOS 379 389 380
CHA 375 400 375
CHN 368 400 368
CIN 379 404 370
CLE 370 400 375
COL 390 415 375
DET 370 420 365
HOU 362 436 373
KCR 387 410 387
LAA 387 400 370
LAN 375 400 375
MIA 386 418 392
MIL 371 400 374
MIN 377 407 365
NYA 399 408 385
NYM 358 408 375
OAK 367 400 367
PHI 374 401 369
PIT 383 399 375
SDP 390 396 390
SEA 378 401 381
SFG 404 399 421
STL 375 400 375
TBR 370 404 370
TEX 390 400 377
TOR 375 400 375
WAS 377 402 370

That should be sortable. What Great American Ball Park doesn’t have are odd, deep features to the side of center field. For example, there’s nothing in there like Fenway’s Triangle. Let’s take a look at an overlay, courtesy of the ESPN Home Run Tracker:

Rogers Centre was selected because it’s roughly “average”. It’s not that Choo’s going to have less ground to cover in straightaway center. It’s that he’s going to have less ground to cover to the sides of center, as a lot of those deep fly balls in Cincinnati just carry for dingers.

It’s better, undeniably, that Choo’s going to a smaller park instead of a bigger park. He will have less ground to cover than most center fielders. What’s unclear is how much of a difference this will actually make. He’s going to be positioned in more or less the same place as all the other center fielders. Nothing’s different about balls hit in front of him, and little is different about balls to the sides or over his head. The differences are mostly back and to the sides, and then you’re already testing the limits of Choo’s range. In a small park, a great defender is less able to differentiate himself from a poor defender, but what we’re dealing with is only a small fraction of all balls in play. If Choo is a liability in center, he’ll be a liability in center anywhere.

There exists a strong possibility that, in 2013, Shin-Soo Choo will be the worst defensive center fielder in baseball. Center fielders are generally selected for their perceived ability to play center field. Choo’s being pushed to center field because what the Reds really wanted was an outfielder who could get on base. His defensive peer group is a lot better now than it was, and those are the players to whom he’ll be compared. Michael Bourns. Drew Stubbses. Coco Crisps. There aren’t really any other Shin-Soo Choos in there.

But. The Reds do have Chris Heisey available on the bench, and he can play a mean center, so he’ll be available as a late-inning defensive replacement if the Reds don’t want to have Choo out there in certain high-leverage situations. The Reds won’t be entirely lost, especially in games started by Aroldis Chapman in which I assume he’ll strike out every batter he faces. And then there’s the fact that there’s no such thing as a guy who “can’t” play a position. Everybody can play every position, and you’re just talking about a matter of runs. Choo, by moving over, will give away some runs in the field. Probably many more than most other center fielders. The Reds’ outfield defense will not be a strength. But the Reds got Choo for his hitting, and he’ll do a lot of that, probably. You shouldn’t focus on one individual team weakness. You should focus on the overall picture, and Choo makes the Reds’ picture better.

Choo might have a rough adjustment at first. With luck, he’ll get over that in spring training. With luck, he won’t get so down on his defense that it starts to take a toll on his offense. All the Reds need is for Choo to move over and do the best he can do. He’s not going to be great, he’s probably not going to be good, and he might not even be okay. He could be legitimately weak. But the Reds know Choo isn’t a center fielder. They know he’s a guy who’s going to get on base and play in center field. For half of the innings, this solution isn’t going to be pretty, but the Reds got Choo with the other half of the innings in mind.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
wobatus
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wobatus
3 years 9 months ago

Did anyone raise just one eyebrow? I always wanted to be able to do that.

attgig
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attgig
3 years 9 months ago

just did it.
and now just raised the other one.
and now… I’m just showing off..

GlennBraggsSwingAndMissBrokenBat
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GlennBraggsSwingAndMissBrokenBat
3 years 9 months ago

The joy of seeing Joey Votto with a man on base in the first inning will outweigh even the most miserable hack job in CF.

Spike
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Spike
3 years 9 months ago

I don’t get the Stubbs fit in CLE. He’s best used as a platoon CFer but CF seems like the one place the Tribe have covered.

GlennBraggsSwingAndMissBrokenBat
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GlennBraggsSwingAndMissBrokenBat
3 years 9 months ago

Brantley is not a CF.

David
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David
3 years 9 months ago

Indeed. And yet he played center ahead of Choo…

bradsbeard
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bradsbeard
3 years 9 months ago

Of note, David DeJesus appears to be the Cubs’ starting CF as of right now. He’s 3 years older than Choo and his RF UZR was also in decline last season.

steex
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steex
3 years 9 months ago

Am I the only one who thought he’d accidentally stumbled into a NotGraphs post about NBC’s new counter to The Big Bang Theory?

AK7007
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AK7007
3 years 9 months ago

Do we really need to define outfielders by a position? Giving away runs in left is the same as giving them away in center, but most teams have decided that they would like to give away fewer in center than the corners. Perhaps fieldFX will tell us that having good defense in center dramatically reduces the need for good fielders in the corner spots, but it is more likely that there isn’t a significant difference between having your best outfielder in center instead of left (thinking of how Granderson-Gardner worked 2010-2011). The better fielder just racks up ridiculous numbers in the corner, offsetting the additional runs surrendered by the “center fielder.”

The reds are just taking this to the logical extreme and saying “screw defense” for all three spots, instead of the conventional wisdom that says you can only do this at the corner spots.

Colin
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Colin
3 years 9 months ago

That’s pretty much what they’re doing, except Bruce is pretty strong in right. Ludwick isn’t a butcher in left but he isn’t great either. Plus having Heisey as Jeff mentioned helps a lot. Imagine he’ll start against lefties a fair bit as well

E-Dub
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E-Dub
3 years 9 months ago

Ludwick is underrated in LF. Surprisingly solid.

Choo
Member
3 years 9 months ago

Yes. The CF is the only player with access to the three deepest areas of the outfield – dead center and the two alleys. Also, 64% of all linedrives and flyballs hit to the OF are in the vicinity of LCF/CF/RCF (the CF’s zone) compared to a 36% to LF/LCF or RF/RCF.

ralph
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ralph
3 years 9 months ago

Thanks for these stats. I was wondering about pretty much the exact same situation.

Though I suppose if you had 2 guys who could play a good-to-excellent CF, the OF configuration doesn’t matter quite so much.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
3 years 9 months ago

Bad defense is a rate thing. A bad defender will get a smaller percentage of the balls hit to a particular area than a good defender. The more balls hit to a bad defender, the more balls don’t get caught. The Reds are putting Choo, a bad defender, in a position to have more balls hit to him, which will result in more balls missed. Putting a good defender in the corner will result in a higher percentage of a lower number of balls being caught.

TheHoustonian
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TheHoustonian
3 years 9 months ago

This makes me wonder. If a team of Miguel Cabreras took the field, would their offense make up for their perceived lack of defense? Would the Fighting Miguel Cabreras outslug all of their perceived defensive deficiencies? Not that Shin-Soo Choo is Miguel Cabrera in center field, mind you.

AK7007
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AK7007
3 years 9 months ago

Do those Miguel Cabreras play behind Chapman or Kirk Reuter?

ABW
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ABW
3 years 9 months ago

Yes and yes. Very much so.

Ian R.
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Ian R.
3 years 9 months ago

To be honest, I’m not so sure. Bad defensive players typically have their shortcomings somewhat muted by playing next to (or in front of, or behind) competent defensive players. Having an infield totally incapable of turning a double play or an outfield utterly unable to chase down anything in the gaps would probably lead to giving up many more runs than just adding up negative UZR numbers would indicate.

D4P
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D4P
3 years 9 months ago

If Matt Kemp can play centerfield*, so can Shin-Soo Choo.

*Matt Kemp can’t play centerfield.

stan
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stan
3 years 9 months ago

Wait, “there’s no question the Reds play in a smaller ballpark” is the sentence two after the one that says that Progressive is smaller than Great American. The list provided also indicates that Progressive would be smaller albeit by just a little. Obviously the ball flies a lot better at Great American, but that’s not going to reduce the amount of ground that Choo is going to have to cover. Keep in mind that this guy was not a great fielder in RF at his best, so if you’re going to call last year an anamoly, then the Choo to center experiment is still lacking. Jay Bruce also had a negative value in RF the last two years too, btw. Ironically, Ryan Ludwick had the best fielding year of the three, and also has a lot of experience in center (38 starts and 300 innnings). That was when he was younger, but he’s only 4 years older than Choo.

TheHoustonian
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TheHoustonian
3 years 9 months ago

“Wait, “there’s no question the Reds play in a smaller ballpark” is the sentence two after the one that says that Progressive is smaller than Great American.”

I read it as “it’s among the smaller ballparks,” rather than as “it’s smaller relative to Progressive.”

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
3 years 9 months ago

Obviously the ball flies a lot better at Great American, but that’s not going to reduce the amount of ground that Choo is going to have to cover.

It will, however, reduce the number of balls that are playable. Center field is the harder position because there is more ground to cover, but it is the more critical position because more balls are hit there. The fewer playable balls get hit there, the lower the impact of a player’s defense. So if you going to stash a bad fielder somewhere, your best bet is to reduce the number of balls he has to field. That’s why first base is the most common place to stash bad defenders.

TKDC
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TKDC
3 years 9 months ago

I’d play Bruce in center.

You would just have to figure out what the Royals want for him.

Monty
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Monty
3 years 9 months ago

Bruce Chen as the reds starting center , it sounds crazy but it may.just work. Think off all runs Thats would be saved having him field as opposed to pitching every 5 days.

Schuxu
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Schuxu
3 years 9 months ago

Wouldn’t Bourne have been a perfect fit for the Reds?

Schuxu
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Schuxu
3 years 9 months ago

Michael Bourn I mean. As a leadoff hitter as well as a center fielder.

camisadelgolf
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camisadelgolf
3 years 9 months ago

Yup. But the Reds don’t have the cash, and they’re only interested in a rental since they believe Billy Hamilton is their center fielder for several years to come.

Matt Anthony
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Matt Anthony
3 years 9 months ago

But don’t forget…Choo has a cannon for an arm. As a long-suffering Indians fan, I once watched Choo throw a guy out at the plate, with one foot on the warning track in Wrigley. On the fly. At GABP, Choo might fling it over the press box. (oh…enjoy your 1-year ‘rental’. Boras is a pit-bull.)

Redsfan
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Redsfan
3 years 9 months ago

Don’t forget that Jay Bruce, who has considerable CF experience, could wind up there if Choo really struggles early there. Bruce played almost exclusively CF throughout his minor-league career, and played primarily CF as a rookie in 2008. Once Ken Griffey was dealt to Chicago in July, 2008, Bruce switched to RF, and has been there ever since. Many seem to think Bruce would be better than Choo in CF.

ryan5268
Guest
ryan5268
3 years 5 months ago

Now, how is the experiment going so far?

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