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:
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:
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:
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.