Monday, August 25, 2014

Choo's Injury Caps Disappointing Season

Shin-Soo Choo's season is over. The Texas Rangers outfielder has a bone spur in his left elbow and will need to go under the knife in the next two weeks to remove it.

Under normal circumstances this would be a devastating blow for the Rangers, losing a player of Choo's ability a week before September, but their season has been anything but ordinary. A slew of injuries has turned a talented team that many thought would contend for first place in the AL West to the worst team in baseball.

Choo was one of the few Rangers to avoid serious injury, having played 123 of the club's 129 games to date. Unfortunately for the 32 year-old his good health did not translate into good production, as he scuffled through the worst season of his career since he began playing regularly in 2008.

Signed by the Rangers to a seven-year, $130 million prior to the season, Choo came to Texas with the reputation of a durable, 20/20 outfielder who got on base a ton. Installed as the team's leadoff hitter, he was expected to bolster the lineup as an elite table-setter for Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder and Alex Rios. Instead, he showed none of the tools that made him an All-Star caliber player and turned out to be an enormous bust in the first year of his new deal--bad news for a player on the wrong side of 30.

Even before his injury, pretty much everything that could go wrong for Choo did go wrong. His .242 batting average and .340 OBP were his lowest marks since 2005, his rookie season, and his .374 SLG., .714 OPS and 100 OPS+ were his worst since 2007.  Compared to last year his walk rate plummeted, his strikeout rate soared, and his BABiP tumbled 30 points even though his batted ball distribution was virtually identical to what it was in his monster 2013 campaign.

Choo, always a poor hitter against southpaws, struggled mightily against righthanders as well, batting just .244/.348/.384 against them (down from .317/.457/.554 against righties a year ago). Versus righties he had trouble hitting pitches down the middle--something that should never be an issue for a hitter of Choo's caliber--and did noticeably worse on inside pitches as well. This development would seem to suggest diminished bat speed as a cause for his struggles and, based on his difficulties with fastballs this year, that's probably the case.

Decline is to be expected given Choo's age, but it was very surprising to see him become a nonfactor on the bases virtually overnight. Formerly a lock to steal 20 bags per year, he nabbed just three in seven attempts after swiping 96 over his previous five seasons. Throw in his shoddy defense in left field and frequent turns at DH, and he was a replacement level player at best.

Mercifully for Choo, his disastrous season is over. He can look forward to getting his swing right and returning to health in 2015, when hopefully for Texas he'll be able to start living up to his massive contract. Because if this is what Choo is going forward--a league average bat with middling power and limited speed who profiles as a corner outfielder/DH type--they're going to be stuck with his albatross of a contract for the rest of the decade.

Of course, Choo is still young enough that a bounce back isn't out of the question, especially if this injury was nagging him for awhile and caused his production to suffer. His proven track record is too distinguished and Texas is too good a hitter's park to write him off after one bad year. But the Rangers have to be prepared for the probability that they're not going to get back the impact player they thought they were getting last winter, and that what they saw from him this year might be as good as it gets.

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