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Shin-Soo Choo's contact quality fueling crazy improvement

Following up on a recent piece, we dive deeper into Shin-Soo Choo's resurgence.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

So, here is the thing. I could start this article the normal way by saying some stuff about a certain team who will be mentioned later. I would then go on to talk about a certain player on said team—you could probably already guess who it might be from the title—and how well he has done recently. I could do that.

On the other hand, I am a sucker for blind comparisons. As a reader, I love to be unbiased and just look at the facts of how a player's stats stack up against others. The lack of bias, obviously, comes from withholding a player's name for just long enough to compare cold hard stats.

With that being said, check out this blind comparison of the second half performances of four players:

I'm. Blind.
Player PA BB% K% BABIP wOBA wRC+ fWAR
Player W 290 5.9% 19.7% .293 .398 158 3.4
Player X 264 14.8% 20.5% .434 .438 178 3.0
Player Y 284 13.4% 18.7% .322 .436 181 4.4
Player Z 265 15.5% 24.5% .326 .397 161 3.0

Since his trade at the deadline, Player W has been an integral part to the New York Mets’ impending first-place finish. Not to mention that, with a .293 BABIP, Yoenis Cespedes is the best candidate out of the bunch to sustain his high performance—if not build on it.

Player Y has been destroying baseballs north of the border—particularly in the second half—en route to helping the Toronto Blue Jays reach the playoffs for the first time since 1993. In fact, I wrote about Josh Donaldson and his second half late last month—and here is the shameless plug to prove it.

As for our last non-main character hidden player, Player Z might be the only player on Earth to have the second half numbers like he does be considered below average. Well, below Mike Trout average, that is.

That leaves our main character. Our lone ranger. Our Choo-ting star. If that terrible pun (and 30 grade baseball writing) didn’t give away the fact that Player X is Texas Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, well I don’t know what will. Choo, who posted a total fWAR of -0.1 from the start of 2014 to first half of this season, has turned it around for the team he signed a seven year/$130 million deal with two offseasons ago. How much of a turnaround? Well just look at the table again. On offense, he has been better than Trout and Cespedes since the start of the second half—and just as good as Donaldson.

In fact, with the 3.0 fWAR Choo has posted in the second half, he has been worth right about where the Rangers are paying him, which is a step in the right direction, especially as he will make $6 million more after this season. If he can repeat this performance going forward, he would shake the stigma of the overpaid veteran he received after his 2014 performance.

But why are we seeing this type of performance now? What has he changed? How can Choo go from the 85 wRC+ of his first half to the 174 wRC+ of his second?

As my BtBS colleague Matt Jackson described, the answer lies directly in his pitch selection:

The key to Choo's resurgence has been his plate discipline. Of those with at least two hundred plate appearances in the first half and one hundred in the second, only Evan Gattis (-12%) and Chase Headley (-8.1%) have cut down the number of pitches they chase outside of the zone more. For Choo, the results have been more dramatic. Of the same group, only one has improved his contact percentage or reduced his swinging strike rate more.

O-SWING% CONTACT% SWSTR%
1st Half 27.9% 73.2% 11.6%
2nd Half 20.0% 79.6% 7.7%
Difference -7.9% 6.4% -3.9%

To further help Jackson's case, here is his swing selection in heatmap form from the first half:

And here is his swing selection in the second half:

Choo's improved plate discipline is something Jackson drove home in his article, as it has been one of the greatest reasons for the turnaround. I would like to focus on what Choo has improved after he makes contact.

Making contact more often on good pitches isn't the only reason Choo has improved. No, it could also help that his exit velocity is up, on average, around 3 mph. Going from 90.35 mph—the 59th highest of all hitters with at least 100 balls in play—to the more impressive 93.37 mph—tied for the 9th highest of all hitters with at least 100 BIP—points to Choo hitting the ball harder.

The improvement is more impressive because the increase in exit velocity doesn't come from Choo pulling the ball more often. In fact, he has pulled the ball nearly ten percent less this half of the season than he did in the first. Instead, Choo has been opting to use the middle of the fieldas an 11 percent increase up the middle would imply:

So we know how hard he is hitting it now and where it is tending to go, but what happens when the ball actually goes into play?

Choo has a BABIP of .434, that is what happens. You read that right. Although Choo has been able to support a high career BABIP of .344, his second half total is just astronomically high. So not only has Choo improved his approach and contact, but the better contact has resulted in hits more often.

The weird thing is, though, as far as the type of contact he makes—fly balls, line drives, and ground balls—only one type is abnormally high relative to his career BABIP:

One of these things is not like the other
Batted Ball Type 1st half 2nd half Career Average before 2nd half
Fly balls .190 .320 .325
Line drives .650 .878 .730
Ground balls .178 .291 .260

Everything is generally in line with his career averages, except for line drives. In terms of Major League Baseball overall, Choo owns the highest BABIP on line drives. That comes in handy for the lefty, as nearly a quarter of the contact he makes results in line drives—a five percent increase from the first half of the season.

Keeping a .434 overall BABIP—which is almost as high as his wOBA—isn’t realistic, and neither are his chances of sustaining an .878 BABIP on line drives. Each will probably feel some regression, but in the grand scheme of things they even out with how low those totals were (.265 overall and .650 on liners) in the first half of this season.

So can Choo sustain the second half totals moving forward? My money would be on no. Can he sustain the .335 BABIP he now owns for the season overall? That is a definite yes. While the Rangers are certainly loving the production they are getting from Choo since July 17th, they aren’t expecting him to keep it up. That would be near impossible. However, for a team that has gone from 3rd place and 42-46 to first place and 84-69 (after Friday night) in the same timeframe of Choo’s turnaround, it is something they appreciate.

*Numbers before Saturday's games

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being a Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.