On December 21st, 2013, exactly a year after the world was supposed to end, the Texas Rangers quietly signed Shin-Soo Choo to a 7-year, $130 million contract. Just one month earlier, the Detroit Tigers had sent Prince Fielder to Arlington in the biggest trade of the off-season. The baseball world and Rangers fans were salivating at the fact that Fielder would be hitting 50+ HR into the right field porch in Arlington. I mean, who wouldn’t? Fielder had an “off-year” in 2013, where he belted 25 HR and had 106 RBI. Since his first full season in 2006, Price had never hit less than 25 HR in a season. Arlington, Texas. What a perfect place to blast dingers for the next seven seasons.
See? I already lost track of the best off-season acquisition in baseball. No, not Price Fielder. It’s Shin-Soo Choo who would put up one of the best seasons around in 2013. Ask your average baseball fan who is the best lead-off hitter in baseball. Many would say Jacoby Ellsbury. Others would say Brett Gardner, Coco Crisp, Starling Marte, or Jose Reyes. And rightfully so. All of these players are very good at what they do. But why don’t we look at the BEST lead-off hitter in baseball, and one of the most underrated players in the game.
Shin-Soo Choo was born and raised in South Korea, where he lived and breathed baseball. At the age of 18, Choo was selected as the Most Valuable Player and Best Pitcher of the 2000 World Junior Baseball Championship.1 Yes, a pitcher. Later that year, the Seattle Mariners signed him to their organization where he was a minor league All-Star in 2001, 2002, and 2004. In 2002, Choo hit .303 with 7 HR, 57 RBI, with an OBP of .421 and 37 stolen bases for the Mariners Single-A affiliate. That year, he was named the Mariners Minor League Player of the Year. Choo worked his way through the ranks of the Mariners’ farm system and eventually made his MLB debut on April 21st, 2005. He only played in 10 games that season and in 2006, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians for 1B Ben Broussard.2
His time in Cleveland didn’t start out so hot. He played sparingly in 2006 and in 2007. In 2007, he had Tommy John surgery and missed most of the season.3 But in 2008, he began to make his name in The Bigs. In only 370 plate appearances, Choo hit .309 with 14 HR and 66 RBI. He also walked 44 times, leading to his impressive .397 OBP. The thing Eric Wedge (Cleveland Indians manager at the time) loved about Choo is he could bat anywhere in the lineup. Surprisingly, in 2008, the only place Choo didn’t bat in the lineup was leadoff. Actually, Choo never batted leadoff on a consistent basis until 2012. In his time in Cleveland, he saw the majority of his at-bats in the 3 or 5 spot, where he put up some beautiful numbers. From 2008 to 2012, Choo averaged 127 games a year (he missed 77 games in 2011 due to a fractured thumb and back spasms), hit a total of 80 HR, drove in 345, and also stole 80 bases. Not to mention, he hit .291 with an on-base percentage of .382. Let’s not forget, Choo played on some pretty awful Cleveland Indians teams. In 2010, Choo’s best season with the Indians where he hit .300 with 22 HR, 90 RBI and an OBP of .401, the Indians went 69-93. Choo was the only player on that team to have over 50 RBI. This is the season where Lou Marson, Matt LaPorta, Luis Valbuena, and Austin Kearns were starting for the Indians.4 Tough year. If Choo and Curtis Granderson (who played for the Yankees from 2010-2013) switched teams, lineups, and especially stadiums, Choo might be the one hitting 50 HR and driving in over 120.5
Even with all of these solid seasons, Choo was still overlooked. On December 11, 2012, Choo was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Trevor Bauer (a top pitching prospect), Matt Albers (a veteran reliever), Bryan Shaw (another reliever), and Drew Stubbs (a once promising prospect who has never lived up to his potential).6 Obviously, the Reds were willing to give up quite a bit of talent to acquire Choo. And boy, did it pay off.
Choo has always been a very good hitter and a hitter who always finds a way to get on base. The Reds gave Choo the opportunity to leadoff for them. This would be the first time in Choo’s career he would bat in a lineup with some pop and protection. After all, he had Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce following him in the order. Choo, in a contract year of course, went on to have the best season of his career and put up some of the best numbers in the league last year. Choo played 154 games, hitting .285 with an absurd .423 OBP. You know who had a better OBP than Shin-Soo Choo? Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Mike Trout. That’s it. Choo is squeezed in between those three monster figureheads in baseball. The three players that followed Choo? Andrew McCutchen, Joe Mauer, and Paul Goldschmidt. The six other players mentioned with Choo were the stars of their respective teams. Choo was probably the 4th or 5th star on the Cincinnati Reds, not to his fault. He has just always been overlooked. Only one player in baseball walked more than Choo, and that was his teammate Joey Votto.
How about this; Shin-Soo Choo was hit by a pitch TWENTY SIX TIMES last year. The only other active player to get plunked more than Choo was Chase Utley in 2008. Only 14 more players in modern baseball history have been hit more than Choo in 2013.7 The stats go on and on. Choo had a .462 slugging percentage, which was better than Adrian Gonzalez, Price Fielder, Allen Craig, and Mark Trumbo. Choo finished 3rd in baseball in runs scored, only trailing Matt Carpenter and Mike Trout. Shin-Soo Choo finished the season with 21 HR, 54 RBI, 34 doubles, and 20 stolen bases.
Now why is Shin-Soo Choo overlooked? Well, it doesn’t help he has played for Cleveland and Cincinnati in his career. Most of his career was spent in Cleveland when they were a pretty bad team, and also a small-market team. He doesn’t bring any flare to his game. He is no Yasiel Puig or Bryce Harper. He wasn’t a high draft pick. Just an international signing. He has always kept to himself and stayed out of the limelight (except for a DUI 2011). He just likes playing baseball. Oh, he did try to become the face of bulgogi, a Korean dish, in The New York Times.8 But that just got awkward. And weird. And creepy. It didn’t last long. The sponsor who put the ad in the paper was a random website that featured some Korean stories and links. That’s it. Just a weird story.
I’m sorry but did I mention Choo is rock solid in the corner outfield spots as well? He has been atop MLB in outfield assists since he has entered the league as well. He can play some centerfield when asked to. The Rangers took notice of Choo’s career and were willing to pay him the big bucks, and rightfully so. This year (yes, still very early), Choo leads the American League with a .343 batting average and a .481 OBP. He has struck out 24 times. He has also walked 23 times. His numbers are spread out across the stat sheet and he is showing the baseball world he can really do it all. Once that Rangers’ offenses gets hot, and it will, Choo will get to showcase that he is one of the best players in baseball.
Get to Know Shin-Soo Choo – http://www.wtam.com/pages/sports/shinsoochoo.html ↩
Choo-Broussard Trade – http://seattle.mariners.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20060726&content_id=1576709&vkey=news_sea&fext=.jsp&c_id=sea ↩
Choo’s Tommy John surgery – http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/2007-09-25-1762492163_x.htm ↩
Your 2010 Cleveland Indians – http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teamstats/roster.php?y=2010&t=cle ↩
Granderson’s inflated numbers at Yankee Stadium – http://espn.go.com/fantasy/baseball/story/_/id/10091072/curtis-granderson-value-likely-drop-mets ↩
Shin-Soo Choo Trade to the Reds – http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2012/12/reds-acquire-shin-soo-choo.html ↩
Single Season HBP Leaders – http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/HBP_season.shtml ↩
The Bulgogi Ad – http://mlb.si.com/2014/03/12/shin-soo-choo-bulgogi-ad-new-york-times/ ↩