Everyone trying to predict this game gets things wrong. Take for example, me. I took a look at Shin-Soo Choo on the Indians and thought he’d be a perfect guy to sell high before his eroding athleticism became more obvious. Ooops? Let’s check more closely, though. We do know he went from a pitcher’s park to a hitter’s one, and that can go a long way towards covering up a continued decline.
Coming off of his 2012 season, Choo was flagging a bit. His stats in the following categories were bottom-two compared to the rest of his career: Isolated slugging, strikeout rate, walk rate, speed score, UZR/150, and baserunning value. He had just turned 30, so none of that was a surprise. He doesn’t have the most athletic body, and if you peer into those numbers — and add defensive ones as I did — it’s easy to see the tools starting to erode.
Last season with the Reds, Choo showed three-year highs in: ISO, strikeout rate, walk rate… and that’s it. Already we have an instructive insight, maybe. In terms of defense and baserunning, Choo’s career continued to decline. Even a move to center field — which provides more positional value — didn’t hide the fact that his glove is getting worse. For the second year in a row, and for the first two years of his career, his UZR/150 was double digits in the red. He was once again less speedy than your average player by speed score, and he once again cost his team on the basepaths despite stealing 20 bases. At least his wheels are starting to get rusty.
But if he steals double-digit bases just on wile and wile alone — hey, Bobby Abreu was a bad-bodied, patient outfielder that managed the same despite looking like a beer-league guy in the belly region — fantasy manager won’t worry too much about the advanced speed metrics. Even if certain teams will give him the green light less and less often based on those metrics, and his below-break-even 65% success rate last season.
So the big deal, with respect to his ownability going forward, comes from the power. He certainly showed more of it last year, and that after a four-year trend downwards in batted ball distance. He did gain four feet of distance back, and that’s less remarkable because he got four feet back and more remarkable because he arrested the decline. The new home park helped some — he had a .180 ISO at home — but he was good on the road, too (.170). He hit more homers on the road than at home, but a .379 BABIP at home helped pad some numbers.
Choo’s always been a high-BABIP guy. He’s at .350 for his career. But .379 is remarkable. Let’s look at his spray chart at home versus away thanks to Bill Petti’s excellent tool:
No obvious reason for his high home BABIP comes out of the spray charts. He’s still the same guy that goes oppo and has power to all fields, and that’s still the same package that seems to lead to high BABIPs.
Added to this revelation — that his power resurgence wasn’t a mirage brought on by a nice home park — is the fact that Choo’s plate discipline should age well. Choo has never depended on contact outside the strike zone to make his bones — in fact he’s never even shown league-average production in that category. So when that part of his game goes away fast in the next few years, as it does for all players, his overall production won’t suffer as greatly as it will for someone like Pablo Sandoval.
Back in the corner outfield, Choo probably won’t be a double-digit negative defender and at a risk for moving to a less valuable position. He can still be valuable in fantasy leagues due to double-digit steals. His plate discipline should age well. His power is in decent shape. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much about the decline of his wheels and the fact that he’s now 31. Then again, we won’t have to give him $100 million to play for our fantasy team.
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