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.
“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:
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.