The 2013 Texas Rangers missed the playoffs despite sporting a record of 91-72 ---- one game shy of forcing a 3-way tie for the two wildcard spots in the American League. This was Texas' fourth consecutive 90+ win season, and despite two World Series appearances in 2011 and 2012, the club remains the oldest MLB franchise never to have won a World Series.
Entering the 2013 off-season, there was no reason to think the Rangers would not remain a formidable force in the American League. Texas made two seemingly significant acquisitions, trading Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder and inking Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year $130 million contract. While the Fielder trade started off poorly due to his season-ending neck surgery, the problems were compounded when Shin-Soo Choo had the worst year of his career. While I wrote about the perils of signing free agents to long-term contracts a few weeks ago, few expected Choo to be barely above replacement level and post a 0.2 fWAR in his first year in Texas. On the surface, Choo's numbers are troubling; diving deeper, possible explanations for his deterioration are not encouraging, though it may not be as dire as having to pay a replacement level player over $100 million over the next six years (at least not in the short term).
Throughout his career, Choo has never been an above average defender, he has never hit more than 22 homers in a season, nor has he accumulated 30 stolen bases in a single season. His value is mainly borne out of plate discipline and on-base percentage, complemented by moderate pop at the plate. His skill set generally leads to 15-20 home runs and a decent amount of stolen bases. Seemingly, the first place to look for any differences underlying his terrible 2014 would be to look at his approach and plate discipline.
|2008||Indians||23.9 %||68.6 %||44.7 %||53.4 %||84.1 %||75.4 %||46.6 %||51.4 %||10.7 %|
|2009||Indians||22.3 %||70.0 %||44.9 %||54.3 %||83.1 %||75.6 %||47.4 %||56.4 %||10.9 %|
|2010||Indians||26.8 %||68.0 %||45.1 %||62.5 %||87.1 %||79.0 %||44.4 %||55.0 %||9.0 %|
|2011||Indians||25.5 %||67.2 %||44.2 %||59.1 %||82.3 %||74.9 %||44.8 %||55.0 %||10.8 %|
|2012||Indians||23.8 %||65.9 %||42.7 %||59.8 %||83.3 %||76.1 %||44.8 %||58.8 %||10.1 %|
|2013||Reds||22.1 %||63.0 %||39.6 %||63.5 %||87.7 %||79.9 %||42.7 %||57.3 %||7.8 %|
|2014||Rangers||22.6 %||63.2 %||41.1 %||57.9 %||84.9 %||76.8 %||45.6 %||56.7 %||9.1 %|
What we find in the above chart is that Choo's 2014 zone profile is very much in line with his previous numbers. Choo's swing percentage for pitches in the zone (z-swing%) is similar when compared to 2013, and his swing percentage on pitches outside the zone (o-swing%) has actually shown some improvement since 2010/2011, when he was a far more productive hitter. Additionally, Choo is whiffing slightly less often than earlier in his career per his swinging strike rate. It does not appear Choo's approach at the plate has changed, yet his results plummeted last year.
Choo's home run rate was a minuscule 2.4% in 2014, and he amassed the lowest home run total of his career, save an injury-shortened 2011 season when he played only half the season. Power generally decreases when a player enters his 30s, and unfortunately for the Rangers, the limited home run total can not be explained via a lower HR/FB rate ---- Choo had a lower HR/FB rate in both 2009 and 2012, two seasons in which he hit over 20 home runs. Likewise, his fly ball percentage is in line with his previous two seasons.
|2008||CLE||1.14||22.8 %||41.1 %||36.1 %||16.1 %|
|2009||CLE||1.17||21.6 %||42.3 %||36.1 %||12.7 %|
|2010||CLE||1.29||19.7 %||45.2 %||35.0 %||14.6 %|
|2011||CLE||1.39||22.4 %||45.1 %||32.5 %||10.4 %|
|2012||CLE||1.83||23.3 %||49.7 %||27.1 %||13.2 %|
|2013||CIN||1.68||21.1 %||49.4 %||29.4 %||16.4 %|
|2014||TEX||1.68||20.2 %||50.0 %||29.8 %||13.4 %|
Looking at Choo's total offensive value may give some hints as to why he was barely above replacement level in 2014. By weight runs created plus, Choo was a league average hitter; definitely not what the Rangers had hoped for when they signed him. Although a .340 OBP is solid, it's by far the lowest of his career, as was his batting average and slugging percentage.
Choo has always maintained a higher than league average batting average on balls in play (MLB average is generally between .290-.310), and although .308 is in line with the league average, it is below what Choo has averaged in the past.
There are a number of possibilities as to why Choo was so much less valuable in 2014 than he has been in past years. One possibility is that he has lost some of his speed, accounting for a lower BABIP, as he is no longer beating out ground balls. This would also explain his lack of stolen base attempts. A slowing of Choo would also impact his taking the extra base, going from first to third, second to home etc.
Another possibility is that he has lost some of his strength from his 20s and is not hitting the ball as hard as he had previously. This could potentially explain the lack in home runs and doubles (his 19 doubles in 2014 was the lowest of any non-injury shortened season of his career). A third possibility could be that Choo's career has been one of marked random variation, where during his peak years, he over-performed his true talent level, and in 2014, under-performed it.
It seems likely that a combination of all of these theories are at least partially affecting Choo's production. Fangraphs' Steamer projections estimate Choo will be a 2-2.5 win player in 2015, which would be less than what Texas is paying for, but more than what he gave them in 2014. Either way, Choo is unlikely to amass enough value over the life of his Texas contract to make the signing worth it. The Rangers better hope Prince Fielder comes back with a bang.
All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs
Steven Martano is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.