April 21st, 2014: It’s the first inning in Oakland, California. The Texas Rangers, sporting a 12-8 record, feature a lineup of Shin-Soo Choo, Andrus, Rios, Fielder, Kouzmanoff, Moreland, Murphy, Martin, and Chirinos. More than thirteen-thousand raucous A’s fans happily endure a 55-degree NorCal evening to see division rivals square off. Shin-Soo Choo steps up to the dish with a robust .314 batting average and .432 on-base percentage to his credit.
Choo stares in at Dan Straily, his vibrant red batting gloves reflecting in the lights. A moment later, Choo launches a pitch deep into the night and over the right-center field wall. That ball is history!
Is it a sign of things to come? Is it foreshadowing of what looks to be a contentious rivalry incrementally brewing over the next six months? We hope.
Six Innings Later: It’s the bottom of the 7th inning. Up to bat again, Choo chops a ball in the infield and digs toward first. Choo’s foot collides violently with the bag and he hobbles painfully back to the Rangers dugout. #RangersNation holds its collective breath.
Choo later has an x-ray on his sore left ankle with negative results. Slight exhale.
Three Months Later: It’s August 5th, 2014 – 87 games since The Incident. In those 87 games, Shin-Soo Choo bats a paltry .218 with an even more disappointing .322 OBP.
What happened to our on-base machine who looked like an MVP candidate the first month of the season? More importantly, where did our money go?
The ankle obviously still bothers him.
Before The Incident, the Texas Rangers were above .500, holding tightly to the second spot in the American League West. Post-Incident, the Texas Rangers are 28-59, sinking and landing at the bottom of the American League.
I think I can figure this one out: The Rangers are good when Shin-Soo Choo is good.
It makes sense. Shin-Soo Choo is exactly what we clamored for last year when the Rangers couldn’t buy a base hit in front of Beltre, Cruz, Rios et al. Kinsler far too often swung for the fences and Elvis has a long-chronicled history of an underwhelming on-base percentage. When the Rangers finally acquired a leadoff man who could reach first base consistently – albeit with the base-running skills of a toddler – the problems seemed to be solved.
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However, Shin-Soo Choo’s ankle pirouetted into a sprain, Prince Fielder’s neck decided baseball was overrated, Martin Perez’s elbow said “nah man,” and thus began the decline of our once promising season.
But the ankle can’t be the only reason for Shin-Soo Choo’s decline, right?
This season marks the inauguration of the widespread use of the shift in Major League baseball. In fact, bench coach Tim Bogar’s spot next to Ron Washington in the dugout is almost solely credited to his knowledge of shifts and when to use them. Tim Bogar and Ron Washington are the yin yang of baseball coaches, Bogar’s analytics counter-balancing Washington’s gut feelings.
Choo’s struggles against the shift even caught the national media’s eye. SI.com’s Tom Verducci, in a recent article advocating the prohibition of shifts, cited several lefthanders feeling the shift’s squeeze and mentioned Choo:
"In fact, many lefthanded sluggers are having down years. The group includes [Chris] Davis (.202 batting average overall), Ryan Howard (.222), Jay Bruce (.221), Adam Dunn (.223), Shin-Soo Choo (.239), Pedro Alvarez (.237), Brian McCann (.242), David Ortiz (.251) and Adrian Gonzalez (.256)."
For the Rangers to return to their past and hopefully future glory, Shin-Soo Choo must reclaim his throne as the OBP king and reign for the next six or so years when his salary is north of the $20 million mark. To do that, Choo’s ankle must heal properly and he must figure out a way to beat the shift, which he has started to do in the past few weeks.
Without a healthy or productive Choo, the Rangers will continue to flounder in getting men on base in front of their power hitters.
So take a break, go to the DL, DH more (which Wash has promised), take a vay-cay – just be the pitch-taking, hit-by-pitching, double-in-the-gapping Shin-Soo Choo we all know you are when Opening Day 2015 rolls around.
Because Shin- Soo Choo is the straw that stirs the Rangers offense.
All stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com