As destiny decrees, Choo an ideal leadoff man
What occurred by chance has become Rangers outfielder's true calling
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Shin-Soo Choo is an accidental leadoff hitter, having arrived in the role by the pure happenstance of once being on an Indians team so desperate for top-of-the-order production that it briefly resuscitated the career of a then-38-year-old Johnny Damon.
For the better part of his big league career, Choo was cast as a No. 3 hitter, a guy with the power, plate discipline and productivity to naturally slide into that prime-time position. But while his mid-2012 desperation move to the No. 1 slot by then-Tribe manager Manny Acta was purely experimental -- you might even say accidental -- it's hard to argue with the overall result, particularly after it earned Choo a seven-year, $130 million commitment from the Rangers on the open market.
"That's human life," Choo said with a smile. "You never know. [In 2012] I was thinking, 'Really? I'm a leadoff hitter? I've never hit leadoff.' You know fate? Human fate? This was my fate."
Fate is fate and facts are facts. Choo's ability to read and see pitches -- working counts and drawing walks and exhausting the opposition -- has made him the ideal leadoff option in a game with an increasing appreciation for on-base percentage.
Only one other leadoff hitter -- Atlanta's Jordan Schafer -- saw more pitches per plate appearance than did Choo (4.24) with the Reds last year, and Schafer had exactly 500 fewer plate appearances in the leadoff role. And Choo's .423 OBP ranked fourth among all qualifying hitters, trailing only Miguel Cabrera, teammate Joey Votto and Mike Trout.
These were the cornerstones upon which Choo's free-agent market was built, and the Rangers pounced with that gargantuan deal because of their belief that while any long-term deal for a player in his early 30s (Choo turns 32 this summer) is inherently risky, discipline knows no age and could, in fact, prove somewhat contagious.
A similar mentality was applied to the trade for Prince Fielder, whose .390 OBP dating back to 2006 is tied for the 10th-best mark in baseball in that timeframe. Fittingly, the guy he's tied with is Choo, and Texas expects Choo to be setting up ample opportunity for Fielder and Adrian Beltre this season.
"We had been a little bit too power-centric," assistant general manager Thad Levine said. "We wanted somebody to set a tone and be that grinder. Not necessarily a guy who walked all the time, but a guy who could beat you both with the long ball and by working counts. And the sheer value of that is enhanced by Arlington when it's so hot. We're just so aware of what every pitch means to the pitcher and to the defense and to the degradation of their alertness and their focus. So we figured, 'Why not take advantage of that on our end?'"
The Rangers long had their eye on Choo. Jim Colborn, their senior adviser for Pacific Rim operations, was the scout who initially signed Choo to the Seattle organization out of his native Korea. And when the Indians dangled Choo on the trade market at the end of '12, Texas was one of the teams that expressed interest, to no avail.
Once Choo hit the open market, there were questions about whether his age and platoon splits would prevent him from reaping a contract this colossal. But the Rangers weren't the only ones with an interest in this range. The Yankees, in fact, made him a seven-year, $140 million offer in the late evening one December day, only to pull it off the table and sign Carlos Beltran the following afternoon.
"In my opinion, it takes some time to make a decision, maybe at least a couple days," Choo said. "You want to learn a city and a team. They gave me 21 hours."
The discussions with Texas were quite a bit more interactive and, as it turned out, productive. Jon Daniels, Levine, Ron Washington and Colborn flew to Los Angeles to meet with Choo and agent Scott Boras, and Choo was at the ready with ideas about how he'd fit into what is now a loaded and multi-dimensional lineup.
"We don't necessarily see him exclusively as a leadoff hitter," Levine said. "We see him as a guy who, as he matures through this contract, may wind up hitting second, third, fourth or fifth for us at different points. And one of the things we've stressed to the guys who are bottom of the order is to look at yourself as a No. 1 and 2 hitter, so that this guy is the leadoff hitter the first time up and then the three-hole hitter for the rest of the game."
Choo's patience comes from a particular attention to pitch recognition. It was not surprising that he asked the Rangers to incorporate the use of iTrac -- a batting cage machine that spits out high-velocity tennis balls with numbers and colors that the hitter learns to decipher, with the aim of increasing the ability to read the seams on the ball upon delivery from the pitcher -- into the Spring Training and in-season pregame routine.
What intrigues Texas is not just Choo's ability to work counts but his willingness to impart that skill upon other players. That his locker neighbors those of Elvis Andrus, Mitch Moreland and Jurickson Profar is no accident.
The Rangers expect Choo to prove his worth in underrated ways.
"The offensive tenets that Wash has espoused here and [hitting coach Dave] Magadan has supported, it's so much more impactful when you have a player who lives and breathes it on a daily basis," Levine said. "We experienced it in a short view with Milton Bradley [in 2008, when Bradley's .436 OBP was the best in the league] and his residual impact. Adding Choo and Fielder, we're hopeful it's going to have a dramatic impact on our other young hitters, both the ones here on the roster and the ones across the hall who will be here in the future."
Choo has a tough transition ahead of him as he adjusts to left field, a position where he didn't stick with the Indians (though it's no tougher than his move to center field last season). And he's not likely to suddenly escape his struggles against left-handed pitching.
But this was an investment in a guy who can make pitchers uncomfortable on a hot Texas night. A major investment, as it turned out, because, when you factor in the absence of state taxes, Choo's deal with the Rangers is actually significantly better than what he had been offered by the Yanks.
"People talk about no state taxes in Texas and say, 'That's why you took it,'" Choo said. "No way. When people talk on the phone and tell me they made an offer, I don't have a calculator with me. I'm not smart like that. Thank you for thinking I'm smart like that, but I'm not."
Choo's intelligence is applied in other ways, particularly within the confines of the batter's box and in a tone-setting leadoff role that he claimed by happenstance and mastered with profound patience.
If this was Choo's fate, he's got 130 million reasons to believe the fates were smiling upon him.