Should the O’s Be Concerned About Shin-Soo Choo’s Splits?
Let’s assume for a moment that this report from Jon Morosi on the O’s interest in Shin-Soo Choo is accurate. While many O’s fans have their doubts about the team’s willingness and ability to spend on a free agent of Choo’s caliber, I want to take a look at a hypothetical situation where the O’s do pursue and sign Choo. Since the outfielder is reportedly seeking 7 years and $140 Million it would be prudent to take a critical look at some of his flaws.
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The biggest knock on Choo, besides his inability to play centerfield, is that he’s a glorified platoon bat. This is true on some levels, but inaccurate on others. At its most basic this argument stems from a look at his batting averages against righties and lefties. In 2013 Choo hit .317 against right-handed pitchers, and just .215 against left-handed pitchers. That’s a pretty significant dropoff, especially for a player who is seemingly demanding $20MM per season. It’s worth noting that his career splits are similar, though not as drastic: .309 vs. RHP, and .243 vs. LHP.
Choo supporters will point to his .347 OBP against lefties as evidence that a good batting eye doesn’t have platoon splits. Sadly, that OBP would have been second on the Orioles team last year, trailing only Chris Davis and his .370 mark. The next closest full-time player was Nate McLouth who had an OBP of .329 over 523 plate appearances. Better yet, Choo’s overall .423 OBP last season would blow everyone on the O’s out of the water.
Still, a .215 batting average against lefties is concerning to say the least. However, the more concerning fact to me is that he only produced a .265 slugging percentage against pitchers of the same hand last season, including exactly 0 home runs, 1 Triple, and 7 doubles.
What’s interesting to me is that by looking at his line drive rates last season, there seems to be little difference in his ability to drive the ball against left-handed pitchers. His LD% against righties was 21.5%, and fell to 20.3% against lefties. No, the biggest difference seems to be that he trades a 10% drop in fly ball rate against lefties, for a 10% increase in groundball rate. Looking at the spray charts though make me wonder if he really is driving the ball against lefties. Below is every line drive Choo hit in 2013 against left-handed pitchers. I’ve also included home runs against lefties, but as you can see, there were none (click on “groundball, bunt, flyball, blooper” to remove them and view LD & HR only):
You can clearly see that Choo struggles to drive the ball against left-handers. There are some to right-center, but little to no line drives to left-center or even down the right field line. Typically we’ll see a player hit the ball well to both gaps, and down the line as they turn on inside pitches and drive outside pitches to the opposite field. This certainly isn’t an absolute for every player, but it’s a decent general guide. We can compare this to his chart of line drives and home runs against righties to see if that follows the distribution we’d expect (click on “groundball, bunt, flyball, blooper” to remove them and view LD & HR only):
As you can clearly see, Choo drives the ball well to all fields against right-handed pitchers. There is a clear cluster of line drives and home runs to right field, even working towards right-center. There are also groups of line drives to both gaps, a strong indication that Choo is able to drive the ball well.
If the O’s are going to make a $140 Million investment in a player, they better hope they can identify a mechanical flaw that fixes, at least somewhat, Choo’s inability to drive the ball against lefties.
Jerry Crasnick listed the O’s as a potential suitor, and made the following comment about their interest:
Chris Davis was the only Baltimore regular with an on-base percentage above .330 last season, so Choo (.423 OBP at leadoff last season) would be a welcome addition at leadoff. But Adam Jones, Baltimore’s best player, is signed to a long-term deal for $85 million, so the Orioles would probably be hesitant to go much beyond that. The O’s also face the prospect of Davis and fellow Boras client Matt Wieters hitting the free-agent market after the 2015 season. They might want to conserve their resources now to have any chance to bring back one or both of those players later.
If the O’s do decide to make the splash, Choo’s superb OBP, from both sides of the plate, would make him an ideal candidate for a leadoff role on the club. His OBP has gone up each of the last three years, and there’s a seriously potent bat against righties in there. While he clearly has issues hitting lefties, his high OBP indicates to me that he doesn’t have a ton of trouble picking up the ball from lefties, but rather that there is a mechanical flaw keeping him from hitting them well, and driving the baseball.
If the O’s think they can fix that, Choo could easily go from a 3-4 win player to a 6-7 win player in a corner outfield spot. That would no doubt be worth the $20MM per year it would cost to sign him.