Updating the Top 100: Shin-Soo Choo

Note: photo may be a mirage - USA TODAY Sports

You're damn right he's here already.

There is a lot to say about Choo, so let's get right to it, divided into three parts.

Part 1) By my calculations, and assuming that Choo is in fact destined to play for another team next year, Choo is the greatest "one-hit wonder" in franchise history. Here are the top five contenders, prior to Choo, for the unique honor:

  • Kip Selbach, 1899: (LF, CF) .297/.386/.410 (116 OPS+), 105 runs, 87 RBI in 141 games played. The Reds bought his contract prior to the year and sold it thereafter.
  • Lee Magee, 1918: (2B) .290/.331/.394 (122 OPS+), 61 runs, 28 RBI in 119 games played. Magee was obtained for the infamous PTBNL, and sold after the season.
  • Ron Gant, 1995: (LF) .276/.386/.554 (146 OPS+), 79 runs, 88 RBI in 119 games played. Gant was signed to a one-year contract after missing the entire '94 season with an injury.
  • Greg Vaughn, 1999 (LF) .245/.347/.535 (117 OPS+), 104 runs, 118 RBI in 153 games played. The Reds traded Reggie Sanders to the Padres for Vaughn who led the Reds to a near-miss of a season.
  • Mike Cameron, 1999 (CF) .256/.357/.469 (105 OPS+), 93 runs, 66 RBI in 146 games played. The Reds traded Paul Konerko to get Cameron, then traded him after one year to land Griffey Junior. Ah, the Bowden years.

By way of comparison, Choo hit .285/.423/.462 (143 OPS+), 107 runs, 54 RBI in 154 games played, mostly in centerfield. Like I said, he tops the list above, and I'm not sure it's all that close. It's a bit of an arbitrary list, by definition, but pretty cool nonetheless.

Part 2) I get that defensive statistics are getting better, rapidly. I'll take the play-by-play inspired metrics over the old-world fielding percentages any day. That said, I need to run a sanity check from time to time, since one of my pet peeves about the all-encompassing metrics is when the sum of the parts don't add up to anything recognizable.

Let's start with some facts. The 2013 Reds led all of baseball in defensive efficiency (DER) by a wide margin (the Reds converted 71.5% of all non-HR batted balls into outs; next best were Oakland at 70.8%. In fact, the Reds' defense was about 2.4 standard deviations above average, for those of you who are into such things.). This represents a fairly meaningful improvement over 2012's DER, whereby the Reds recorded 69.9% of catchable balls into outs, 10th best in MLB.

It goes without saying that the year-over-year pitching staff was pretty much the same, and that most of the fielders were the same, although there was some level of turnover at 3rd base, left field, and center field. Let's try to isolate this to the Reds' center field position, incorporating some more years of history at the same time:

Year

Team BFP

Team K

Team LD + FB

Team LD

CF PO

CF PO Rate

CF PO Rate (FB only)

2009

6,253

1,069

2,550

907

458

18.0%

27.9%

2010

6,182

1,130

2,483

863

439

17.7%

27.1%

2011

6,259

1,112

2,419

845

404

16.7%

25.7%

2012

6,056

1,248

2,289

853

361

15.8%

25.1%

2013

6,077

1,296

2,302

1,135

386

16.8%

33.1%

Here's the part where I reference Fangraph's rating of Shin-Soo Choo as the worst defensive regular centerfielder in baseball in 2013.

Some additional data and observations:

1) With pretty much the same pitching staff, Shin-Soo Choo recorded more putouts per inning than did Drew Stubbs in 2012.

2) Stubbs was routinely credited with being a plus ball-catcher, but maybe his output was lagging his reputation.

3) Something weird is going on with Baseball Reference's data in the table above, as a 33% increase in line drives allowed strikes me as implausible.

4) It's possible (but not necessarily likely) that there is data goofiness that is leading to Choo's poor defensive ratings.

5) That said, he was expected to be a defensive liability when the Reds traded for him, based on Choo's record as a rightfielder in Cleveland.

The bottom line, for me, is that I'm missing some level of data and context. It's worth pointing out that of the two sabermetric fielding stats displayed by BR.com, Choo ranks 3rd best of MLB centerfielders in one, and dead last in the other. I can't reconcile the two, but I'd love to see someone try. I know that it's difficult for me to imagine a team defense being the best in baseball without that team's centerfielder being, at worst, average. For example, here are the regular centerfielders for the league's best DER teams in recent history, at 5-year intervals:

Year

Team

Centerfielder

2013

Reds

Shin-Soo Choo

2008

Rays

B.J. Upton

2003

Mariners

Mike Cameron

1998

Yankees

Bernie Williams

1993

Braves

Otis Nixon

1988

Reds

Eric Davis

1983

Tigers

Chet Lemon

1978

Yankees

Mickey Rivers

1973

Orioles

Paul Blair

1968

Orioles

Paul Blair

I don't know that this definitively proves anything, but those are some pretty good fielders on this list. Of course, you can't field a good team with just one glove man, so perhaps the Reds covered for a deficient centerfielder with excellent defenders everywhere else. For now, I'll stick with Occam's Razor.

Part 3) The other interesting topic, re: Choo, is what's coming next. It's been posited that any valuation questions on Choo are likely moot, since he's expected to attract some very healthy offers from other teams. But what if the Reds had a way to swing the deal? Although Choo's 2013 season fits comfortably with his batting line in Cleveland, especially when you strip out his injury-riddled 2011 campaign, it's worth pointing out that 2013 marks a career high in on-base percentage for Choo. Some regression to the mean is likely, given that peak as well as the player's age. Additionally, the Reds' top position player prospect is nominally slated to scoot into the CF/leadoff role, albeit with projected rates nowhere near Choo's production.

The Choo question, money aside, is inevitably the Ryan Ludwick question. Putting Choo in left field takes his defensive variability out of play (he would almost certainly grade out as an above-average left fielder), and would upgrade a black hole of a position on offense and defense. My problem, generally, with the free agent contract estimates is that they are based on some dollar amount multiplied by some WAR projection, without considering what the true "replacement level" is for the interested team. The Reds, however, got roughly zip from LF in 2013, making the WAR calculation apt. Should the Reds be willing to view Ludwick as either bait or bench stock, then it's full steam ahead on charging after Choo. If not, then those assets are likely better deployed elsewhere.

On the basis of an outstanding season in which he hit like a star and either fielded well or not well, Shin-Soo Choo jumps into slot #238 on the team's all-time list.

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