On Choo’s Production and Earning Potential: a Power-Outage?

One of the things I like most about Shin-Soo Choo is that so much of his value seems to fly under the radar.  Because he’s not likely to lead the league in batting average or home runs or RBI, a lot of people don’t quite understand the sort of contribution that he brings to a club.  Couple that with a last place team, and it’s easy to forget just how good a player he is.

So let’s look at a few stats that I think do a pretty good job of estimating Choo’s contributions to his team.  You’ll remember that wOBA does a nice job of taking all the things that a batter can do and assigning a number to his performance; it’s basically a better version of OPS.  But, much like OPS, wOBA is a raw number that doesn’t account for playing time.  We all know that a player with a .900 OPS is good, but if he only had a few at bats, we’re likely not going to be all that impressed.

Which brings me to a statistic that uses wOBA and playing time together, called “weighted runs created” or wRC.  Basically wRC translates a player’s production into runs created for his team—how many runs did a particular player contribute, based on his wOBA and playing time?  Anyway, here are the leaders in wRC for the 2009 season among AL qualified outfielders:

Name Team wRC
Shin-Soo Choo Indians 116.5
Adam Lind Blue Jays 114.0
Jason Bay Red Sox 112.5
Ben Zobrist Rays 111.1
Ichiro Suzuki Mariners 103.8
Carl Crawford Rays 101.6
Bobby Abreu Angels 101.0

In 2009, Choo led all AL outfielders in wRC, meaning that he did more with his bat than any other outfielder in the American League to increase run-scoring for his team.

Let’s look in more detail to see what made Choo so good in 2009, before looking at what’s happening in 2010.  Last season, Choo played in 156 games (96.3%) and batted .300/.394/.489.  None of those numbers, by itself, will win anyone any awards.  Consider: among AL outfielders, Choo ranked eighth in batting average, second in OBP, and eleventh in slugging.  Not one of his skills stood out above his competition.

But in concert?  He was darn valuable, leading AL outfielders in wRC.  Why?  Because he was very good at everything a batter should be doing AND he played in so many games.  Those who had higher batting averages (Ichiro, Podsednik, Ellsbury) weren’t good at taking walks or hitting for power.  Those who hit for more power (Lind, Kubel, Cruz) made far more outs than Choo did.  Those with better wOBAs (Zobrist) didn’t play in enough games.  Choo combined the two most important offensive skills—power and not making outs—to post a .389 wOBA for the season.  Couple that with all his playing time, and he ended up contributing more offensive production than any other AL outfielder last season.

So let’s take a look at 2010, to see if Choo is keeping up his awesome production.  Thus far, Choo has played in only 116 of the Indians’ 133 games this season (87.2%).  His line this season is .294/.390/.461, good for a .375 wOBA.  Even considering all the time he’s missed, Choo still ranks fourth in the AL among outfielders with 82.6 wRC.  His rate stats are slightly down from last season, but not terribly so.  In fact, his batting average and on-base percentage are pretty much in line with his 2009 campaign.  His slugging, though, has dropped by .029 points.

Which got me to thinking: Choo really hasn’t seemed to have as much power this year as last, especially lately.  I thought I’d break down his production by month.  First, 2009:

PA AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA wRC
Apr-09 93 0.274 0.409 0.479 0.888 0.402 16.8
May-09 128 0.311 0.414 0.472 0.886 0.392 22.0
Jun-09 117 0.287 0.385 0.406 0.791 0.363 17.3
Jul-09 105 0.307 0.419 0.557 0.976 0.424 20.9
Aug-09 121 0.318 0.364 0.482 0.846 0.364 18.0
Sep-09 121 0.295 0.380 0.543 0.923 0.397 21.4

There’s a lot of data there, but look down each column: remarkable consistency, I’d say.  His worst month last season was June, but he still had a .791 OPS, which in all likelihood is higher than Michael Brantley will ever hit.  He never contributed fewer than 16.8 wRC and never more than 22.0.  A large part of that consistency was due to his steady playing time, but I think it’s fair to say that Choo’s 2009 was a hidden gem of consistent offensive production.

Now, here’s 2010:

PA AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA wRC
Apr-10 98 0.317 0.429 0.500 0.929 0.409 18.2
May-10 120 0.250 0.350 0.404 0.754 0.338 15.4
Jun-10 127 0.306 0.402 0.537 0.939 0.405 23.2
Jul-10 45 0.333 0.378 0.500 0.878 0.388 7.6
Aug-10 126 0.278 0.381 0.380 0.761 0.338 16.2

Obviously, we should probably throw out July, since Choo only had 45 plate appearances—he was out with a thumb injury for much of the month.

But look at August.  His average is a bit low, though not strikingly so, and anyway his OBP stayed above .380, so he still got on base at a great clip.  Now look at that slugging percentage: never in Choo’s entire career has he had a month where he slugged less than .400.  Until this August.

And that low slugging percentage carries over to his “productivity” stats like wOBA and wRC.  His wOBA for August was only .338 (.330 is average for all MLB players), and despite getting nearly as many plate appearances in a month as he’s ever had, he still barely cracked 16.2 wRC—less than he posted for any month during his entire 2009 campaign.

Choo’s injury-riddled July and impotent August have left him with only 15 HR and 63 RBI for the year.  That’s not terrific production for a guy who’s single-handedly carrying an offense, even while keeping in mind the limitations of using those figures to evaluate a hitter.

I know what you’re saying: a large part of this analysis relies on sample sizes that are probably too small to draw any serious conclusions from.  After all, we all know that anything can happen for a month that might throw a hitter off, and it’s not really appropriate to read too much into such tiny samples.

So why do I bring any of this up?  I certainly don’t believe that Choo has entered a “decline” phase, and I would guess that most of his power will come back in full force after resting his thumb this offseason.  To me, that power dip looks more like the residual effects of an injured thumb than the beginning of the end of Choo’s offensive production.

Well, in case you didn’t know already, Choo is due a large raise at the end of this season.  He’s completed his pre-arbitration service time, and now he’ll either go to arbitration or sign a contract.  Either way, he’ll be making significantly more than the $461,100 he made this year.  But I would suggest that his decreased power might work against him (and, conversely, for the Indians) in the upcoming contract- and/or arbitration discussions.

I asked the other night on Twitter whether people thought Choo would go to arbitration or sign a contract.  The overwhelming response was that he’d go to arbitration, becoming the first Indian to go to arbitration since Greg Swindell and Jerry Browne in 1991.  People cited Scott Boras’ influence, and suggested that Boras would NEVER allow one of his players to give up any free agency years.

While I agree that Boras won’t let Choo sign a contract longer than three years, I do think it’s likely that Choo will sign rather than going to arbitration.  For one thing, I would think that a 29 year old outfielder might want some job security.  All it would take is one injury to end Choo’s earning potential were he to go to arbitration (arbitration settlements last for one year only).  If, on the other hand, he signs a three-year deal with the Indians, he would be protected financially in case he were to get injured, even if he did believe he was leaving some money on the table to do so.

But secondly, arbiters are not stats-junkies or even baseball fans.  They’re lawyers who are brought in to settle a dispute: they typically look at home runs, RBI, and batting average for an offensive player—all attributes that don’t quite do Choo justice.  If Choo goes to arbitration coming off a season with about 18 HR, 85 RBI and a .290 batting average, he’s not going to make a ton of money, even if he leads the league in wRC.  Those are Ryan Garko numbers, not Ryan Howard numbers.  Couple that with the likelihood that Boras will ask for an astronomical figure, and you start to see how Choo could lose an arbitration hearing with the Indians, and make whatever figure they come to the table with.

Choo’s power-outage is certainly not a good thing; I don’t mean to suggest that.  But I’m betting it’s temporary.  And I wonder if it won’t end up saving the Indians a few million dollars this offseason.  We’ll see, soon enough.

  • Lyon

    Very valid points. I really hope the team makes him a reasonable offer and he signs the deal. Lets actually try to keep this one around, not just low ball him and say we gave it our best shot.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Jon

    @ Lyon:

    I guess I don’t really care whether he goes to arbitration or not: either way, he’ll be the under the Indians control for three more years for less money than he would make as a free agent. After that? Believe it or not, I’d seriously think about letting him walk, considering Choo’s age and Weglarz’ availability.

    For Choo’s sake, I hope he doesn’t go to arbitration, because he could lose some real money–especially if he gets hurt. From the Indians perspective, I think a contract makes sense so you don’t have to have a meeting every year where you tell your best player he’s not good enough to make the money he wants.

    To me, a 3-year contract makes too much sense for both sides not to happen. But then again, I’m not an agent who just lost Alex Rodriguez from my client list. So what do I know?

  • Lyon

    Yeah the real wild card is Boras. Who knows what he’ll do.

    And I agree. The Tribe should try to get him a contract so they don’t offend him every offseason. But like you said, it makes sense for both sides, so knowing the Cleveland way, we’ll see him go to arbritration.

  • Harv 21

    So the Indians, worst attendance in the league and spiraling down, will make an offer close enough to market rate to induce Choo to give up any of his prime earning years. While they are dumping every other contract over $4M that they can. Are we watching the same organizational arc?

    Fans are in denial about the Dolans’ current financial state, no matter how clearly revealed by actions. They dumped Lee and others in return for whatever they could get, just to meet payroll last year, and that was a year of better attendance. Now they can’t dump Grady’s contract because he’s hurt. Stuck with Hafner’s. Attendance will be worse next year. Wrong owners for this market, and they jumped right down the greased death spiral of “we’ll pay when the fans come.” They are busted with no separate revenue to climb out and down to the saddest dream: pray for some ’07 lightning, huge years simultaneously from young guys, and a little foothold to sell some loges, then builld on that. Like a homeless guy clutching his one, crumbled up lotto ticket, telling you his life plan.

  • mgbode

    would the contract have to have some clause in it for his Korean military service time?

    also, I agree that just getting the contract done so we don’t have to hear the same story the next 3 offseasons would be nice for Choo, the Indians, and the fans. given the Indians history, it would seem likely that something gets done.

    as for letting Choo leave after 3 years, that would be tough, but I agree given Weglarz and Choo being 32 by then, it is a likelihood. but, we have at least 3 more years of Choo, and he might have some military service time mixed in so he could be 35 before we lose his rights.

  • mgbode

    @Harv – I am not sure you understand the arbitration process.

    Choo is NOT giving up ANY of his prime FA years by signing a 3 year deal. He is under control of the Indians organization for the next 3 seasons.

    He can go to arbitration and demand a better offer. If he wins, then the Indians will have a choice of accepting, trading, or cutting him.

    However, as Jon pointed out, the numbers the arbiters look at are not where Choo excels. He will have a tough time winning his case and even if he does it will still be WELL below market value.

  • Akronbobby

    If Choo had anyone in the line up to protect him his numbers would be much higher. Any pitcher worth his salt doesn’t fear walking Choo to get to Hafner. It would also be nice to have an 08 version of Sizemore batting ahead of him as well.

  • Harv 21

    @mgbode: Right you are, did forget the process in my haste to attack the Dolans and multitask here forgot where Choo is FA-wise.

    So my next question is: Boras is a big game hunter, he doesn’t shoot at pigeons. He gets to cherry pick big money or high profile players and he doesn’t need to hang around a player for three years until the real negotiating starts unless it’s getting him lots of pub. This looks loke Kellen Winslow hiring Drew Rosenhaus when he was already locked up. There’s a reason this player and agent wanted each other. Doubt they’re after yearly arbitrations or a middling contract. I think he’s greasing the skids.

  • mgbode

    @Harv- I would think Boras would lock in Choo to his services now rather than risk having to acquire him when he’s looking at getting a huge FA contract 3 years from now.

    So, I agree that he is greasing the skids, but I do believe it’s more of a 3 years down the line thing (as there’s not much leverage Boras has)

  • James

    You completely ignore Choo’s value as a fielder. How many runs has he saved as a result of players not going for doubles, advancing to third on fly-outs or not rounding third for home? His arm in the field is almost as valuable as his bat.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com Jon

    Agreed James. In fact, as I was writing this, I included in the intro a line about defense, and then realized that the post was already getting a bit long-winded.

    For reference, here are Choo’s defensive numbers, from various sources:

    Fielding Percentage: .983 (23rd among AL OFers)
    UZR (including runs saved with his arm): 7.9 runs (6th among AL OFers)
    +/-: 14 runs (tied 3rd among AL OFers)

    So you’re right. All I talked about was his offense, but his defense is strikingly good. And valuable.

    But if the arbiters don’t look at wOBA, they’re certainly not looking at UZR or +/-.

  • Karsten

    Choo heard you, all the way out in Seattle he heard you. And he spoke.

  • Fred Beene

    @ 12. Thinking the same thing. If so, more articles like this, please.

  • Boqueesha

    Chooooooo!!! That was awesome to watch last night!

  • Mikey

    haha seriously…choo read this article and smacked in 5 rbis!

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