Choo has found a way to get better at an age where other players struggle to stick around.
Prior to the 2014 season, Shin-Soo Choo and the Texas Rangers agreed to a dying breed of a contract. Choo was entering his age 31 season and had signed for seven years and $130 million. The Rangers were paying a premium for a hitter in his declining years. Maybe the first few seasons would be great, but the tail end would be frightening. If anything, the opposite has been true. He had one good year in the first half of his contract. He’s always been at least an average hitter, but as a defensively limited player, he needs to do more than that to be good. However, at age 36 and a year away from the end of his deal, Choo is having some of his best results as a Ranger.
Through 70 games, Choo is slashing .280/.383/.500 which is good for a 129 wRC+. An .883 OPS is his highest mark since his 2013 season in Cincinnati, and a 129 wRC+ is an effective tie with his 2015 campaign. He’s on pace for 26 home runs, which would be a career-high. Even if the ball is flying, it’s still impressive to pull that off at 36.
Choo is just one of many Rangers to improve his hard-hit rate this year, but his baseline was already good to begin with. His average in the Statcast era is 42.4 percent, and this year it’s all the way up to 51.6. He trails his teammate Joey Gallo by six percentage points, but that still ranks tenth in the majors. Unsurprisingly, his average exit velocity of 91.5 is his highest since exit velocity started being tracked in 2015.
Even if he’s having his best season in years, the results are maybe a little underwhelming considering how consistently he’s smoking the ball. Choo is only barreling 8.6 percent of his batted balls, and that’s partially because Choo is still a ground ball hitter. There’s reason to temper expectations of Choo. He’s running a .358 BABIP, but that’s not much higher than his career average of .338. Choo is outperforming his xwOBA, but a .364 mark is still well above average.
Choo hasn’t changed his approach. He still jumps on the first pitch but no more so than usual. He’s a bit more patient on pitches out of the zone and more aggressive on pitches in the zone.
Something that’s different is that he’s been far more effective on pitches in the lower third of the strike zone. He hasn’t been as effective against the low pitch since he’s donned a Ranger uniform. He has preferred the pitch up and away.
This year, he’s more consistently golfing the pitches down and away. He’s also creaming pitches middle-in.
Mechanically, Choo looks the same as he always has. He stands up tall as he waits for the pitch. He holds his hands high as he waits for a pitch, and he finishes high. He reminds me a bit of Cody Bellinger in the way that he sets up. Choo’s not so extreme as Bellinger’s rigidity or with how close Bellinger stands to the plate, but it looks like Choo has taken a step closer. Here’s Choo waiting for a pitch from Dallas Keuchel in 2018.
There’s about six inches between his back foot and the line of the catcher’s box. Here’s Choo again in 2019 waiting for a pitch from Corbin Martin.
Choo’s back foot is now flush with the catcher’s box. It’s a small difference, but it might help explain why he’s been better against pitches down and away. He doesn’t have to reach for them quite so much. However, it seems a little counter-intuitive that this would make him better on inside pitches. Maybe it improves his vision on those inside pitches.
Standing closer might also be helping him with covering the slider. Throughout his career, Choo has struggled against the slider. He has a .252 wOBA against the pitch lifetime, but this year, he’s been about average despite seeing more than ever. His .326 wOBA against the pitch is his best against the pitch since 2010.
It remains to be seen whether Choo can keep this up, but even if he doesn’t, it’s incredible that Choo has kept raking for as long as he has. Unless he completely craters, this will be his 12th consecutive season with a wRC+ above 100. He’s shown no signs of cratering, though.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.