Not much has gone right for the Texas Rangers the last two seasons. In 2014 they looked to be a contending team, having traded for Prince Fielder, ready to promote star-prospect Jurickson Profar into an everyday major league role, and making the splashy free agent signing of Shin-Soo Choo. Then everyone on the roster and their backup got hurt, rendering the team largely uncompetitive while finishing 67-95.
There was hope for 2015, as the infirmary would be emptied over the winter and they could get back to battle in the American League West. Well, thus far in 2015 things have not looked much better. They are 15-19, six games back in the division, and have the lowest playoff odds in the AL at 1.8%. Choo, he of the 7-year, $130 million contract, has been an interesting player in the middle of this mess.
Choo's 2014, the first year of the big contract, was the worst season of his career. He was a league average contributor in his 529 trips to the plate (100 weighted runs created plus; wRC+) but gave all that production back on defense, ending the season as a replacement level player (0.1 fWAR). Clearly, this was not the value the Rangers were expecting when they signed the 31 year old.
But these numbers need to be considered in context. Choo played much of the year (123 games) while fighting through two injuries, one to his elbow, the other to his ankle. He managed things for the first five months of the season before eventually joining the rest of his teammates on the disabled list at the end of August. He then underwent surgeries in September to repair his bum elbow and ankle. By electing to play through injury his numbers certainly suffered. He struck out at a higher rate than he had ever before in his career (24.8 K%) and matched a career low in power production (.132 isolated power; ISO).
Coming into 2015, projection systems anticipated that Choo would get back to be being a productive player. Although given his ugly 2014 season and being another year older, his projections were still quite a bit lower than his career marks. Coming into the season, Choo had a career wRC+ of ~130 and typically produced between 2-5 wins above replacement (by FanGraphs). For 2015, Steamer projected a 119 wRC+ and 2.1 WAR, and ZiPS had him pegged for a .350 wOBA and 2.1 WAR. Now, as far as I know these projections more or less ignore the injury aspect of Choo's 2014 and just weight the production into the projection. But, given how Choo's injuries affected his performance considerably in 2014, in my mind there was a reasonable chance that Choo, now healthy, could outperform the projections. If this sounds like someone trying to justify selecting Choo to be a member of his fantasy team, well then it sounds right.
Thus far in 2015 Choo is not outperforming those projections. He has a .335 wOBA, 109 wRC+, has been a negative on defense (-1.6 UZR), and all told has essentially been a replacement level player (0.1 fWAR) (all statistics through Wednesday's games). The wild thing about his current numbers is that they are a dramatic improvement from where he has been this season. Here are his monthly splits:
March/April was shockingly bad for Choo. Some positive regression was due, but do the May numbers suggest that we should get back onboard with Choo? His May numbers are likely to fall back some, and neither of these months is really sustainable for a player like Choo. But what, if anything, changed?
Looking at Choo's splits a little closer suggests the difference across months was a matter of some luck and strength of batted ball contact. In March/April, he had a ridiculously low .111 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which to some extent resulted from an atypical batted ball profile and weak contact. Choo is typically around the league average rate in hitting line drives (career 21.6 LD%), slightly above the league average rate in ground balls (career 46.9 GB%), and below the league average rate in fly balls (career 31.6 FB%). In March/April these rates were out of whack. He was hitting fewer line drives, more ground balls, and more fly balls. Changes in batted ball profile like that will not necessarily, on their own, lead to such low BABIP. But to go with it, Choo was rarely making hard contact (just 27.0% of the time). In May, his line drive rate has jumped back to career norms, and a lot of his contact has been hard (41.7%).
Examining zone profile plots provides little to suggest that pitchers have changed their approach for getting Choo out. Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight (previously of Baseball Prospectus) demonstrated that pitchers will tell us what they think of a batter by where they throw in the strike zone. Ben Lindbergh of Grantland (also previously of Baseball Prospectus) recently wrote an article outlining this idea. The basic idea is that if pitchers attack a batter with a lot of pitches in the strike zone, and specifically close to the center of the zone, it suggests the pitchers think the batter is an easy out. Conversely, throwing away from the center of the zone suggests the pitchers are concerned with the batter's ability. I thought that perhaps pitchers were ahead of us in thinking that Choo was no longer his former self and was now an easy out. If true, there should be evidence that pitchers threw more pitches in the strike zone this year, only for it to backfire and have Choo crush them. But there was not really evidence to support this idea, if anything it looks like pitchers are throwing more pitches to the outer edge of the zone (away from Choo) this year than they did last year, which according to Arthur's work could foretell good things from Choo.
Choo has played to a Jekyll and Hyde performance so far in 2015. Neither month is likely to continue, but I am sure Rangers' fans and owners of Choo in fantasy baseball hope to see more of the May version of him. Projection systems have him at 116 wRC+ and 1.5 WAR for the rest of the season, which are close to his preseason projections. Given his previous elbow and ankle injuries, which according to Jeff Zimmerman are two of the most detrimental for future production, and age, we are unlikely to see another 130-150 wRC+, 5-win season. With that said, we should see something better than what we saw in 2014 and this season's March/April. The Rangers are not a contender in the West, and the contract they gave Choo looks like a poor investment, but if he can be at least an average player they can work with him on the roster, or maybe even entice another team to take him off their hands. Although, the former is more likely than the latter.
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