Shin-Soo Choo is a very good baseball player and a few short days away from becoming very rich. Likely the top remaining free agent option, Choo and his representatives are gunning for a nine-digit pay day, banking on a cash rich market that will pay for a man of his considerably baseball skills.
His skillset is unique in baseball right now. Not a power hitter, Choo managed 21 home runs as a member of the Reds, one off his career high. Brought in as a leadoff hitter, Choo did the job admirably, raising his walk rate and posting the highest on-base percentage of his career.
His .423 OBP was one of the higher marks over the last six years in the league. After an injury limited Choo in 2011, he stormed back in 2012 and 2013, putting his talents on display before diving into free agency.
But those talents – how might they age? At a rate consistent with the enormous (though likely reduced) paycheck he is sure to command?
The size of his contract won’t matter (much) when he steps between the white lines. What is Shin-Soo Choo’s future team buying with their millions – a high OBP guy who doesn’t hit a lot of home runs from a corner outfield spot.
Choo’s combination of high BABIP, high walks and average-ish power is actually quite rare in today’s game. Using Fangraphs’ custom filters, I generated a list of players who amassed 1500 plate appearances between the ages of 28 and 31 with walk rate higher than 12% and an ISO between .150 and .200. (Shin-Soo Choo’s numbers over this span? 12.5% walk rate and a .160 ISO. In 2013, he was 15.7& and .178 ISO.)
The names the FG database spits out are interesting, as you can see. One near Hall of Fame name (that’s right), a valuable and versatile member of the current Rays, and, um, some other guys. Matt Lawton was an early catch of baseball’s Joint Drug Act and never made much of an impression, J.T. Snow had a few great years with the Giants in the twilight of his career, Milton Bradley‘s career fell off a precipitous cliff after his age-30 season and was out of baseball soon after, though non-baseball reasons hastened his exit.
Rusty Greer is an curious case, as he also fell off quickly after he turned 30, felled by injuries owning to his “all out” style of play. The numbers of Greer and Choo are quite similar year-over-year.
It isn’t as if these comparable players (“comparable” by the most narrow/superficial criteria) will keep teams from throwing money at Choo, but it does present a worrying case, outside of John Olerud that is. One player whose name isn’t on this list but should give fans of Choo’s future team hope is Bobby Abreu.
Abreu, like Choo, was a tough left-handed batter and good corner outfielder with a cannon for an arm. They’re listed height and weight are close and, in my mind at least, they have a similar body type. While Abreu’s numbers are better than Choo’s, the way he compiled them look awfully familiar – high walks, good but not spectacular power, a few stolen bases – just two good hitters. Choo better to the opposite field while Abreu handled lefties better.
The thing with using Abreu as a comp for Choo is Abreu was much, much better than Choo in his prime. His first six seasons in Philadelphia were extremely good – we’re talking 6 WAR a year good. Very good! Choo just posted more than 5 Wins for just the second time in his career. Abreu had the extra distance to delay his descent towards average.
Bobby Abreu aged well, posting a 120 wRC+ from age 33 to 37. The teams looking at Choo have to feel like he can age the same way, or at least stay at his current high level for at least another two years before his descent begins and the ugly (but anticipated) back end of a six-or-seven-year contract kicks in.
Maybe his power comes in as he ages? A common thought that, as Eno Sarris shows at Fangraphs, doesn’t really happen. Players lose raw power as they age, they start striking out more and even their patience comes to a point where it begins to decline. Staring down the proposition of paying Choo $80 or $100 million, it all factors in.
Free agency is all about going in with open eyes. With so much money at stake, hoping a player suddenly develops a previously untapped skill or magically hits never-before-seen heights of production is a very bad way to approach such a massive expenditure. Eyes open, Shin-Soo Choo is a good, patient hitter who should, health willing, keep producing in his on base machine style for at least a few more years.
If the bat slows and pitchers learn just to attack as the lack of pop won’t hurt them, Choo might be in trouble. With so many prospective suitors and the bidding getting hot and heavy, fans have to hope their GM doesn’t lose his head on a player with very apparent shelf life.