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May 7, 2013

Overthinking It

Evaluating Early-Season Experiments

by Ben Lindbergh


Four teams asked five players to do things this season that they’d never done prior to 2013. This article is about how well those things have worked for the first six weeks, and whether they can continue.

1. Shin-Soo Choo: start in center field
It’s not that Choo has turned into a superb center fielder. That was never the plan. Starting Choo in center, a position he hadn’t played at all since 2009 and hadn’t played regularly since 2002 (as a 19-year-old in A-ball), was always going to be an exercise in extreme double-entry bookkeeping: Would the runs his bat added outnumber the runs his glove gave up? So far, the answer is an easy “yes.” Choo’s .347 TAv ranks 10th among players with at least 100 plate appearances, and he’s second only to Miguel Cabrera in VORP.

Naturally, there’s been some luck involved, or at least some unsustainable performance. Choo has always been a high-BABIP guy, but he’s running about 40 points above his career average despite (for him) a below-average line-drive rate. And while he’s also always been a guy who gets hit by plenty of pitches, he’s never been plunked at this rate. (Choo has been hit 11 times, nearly twice as often as any other player. His career high is 17, and he doesn’t appear to have changed his stance or approach at the plate in a way that would promote hit by pitches.) Both the BABIP and the HBP have helped drive up Choo’s major-league leading .467 on-base percentage.

The stats tell a somewhat confusing story about Choo’s performance in center. (A lot of defensive stats tell a confusing story after six weeks).* FRAA says he’s been a couple runs below average. That figure prorated over a full season would be an acceptable loss, in light of how well Choo hits. On the other hand(s), DRS has him at -7 and UZR has him at -5.6. Those figures prorated over a full season would seriously eat into his offensive value, once his offensive value regresses somewhat

*According to our batted-ball statistics from MLBAM, Reds pitchers have allowed the highest line-drive rate in baseball. According to BIS’ batted-ball stats at FanGraphs, they’ve allowed the fourth-lowest. The two sources come close to agreeing on the Reds’ roughly average groundball rate, but they can’t agree on whether the non-grounders were flies or line drives.

Over the winter, no one would have scoffed at the suggestion that Choo would be the worst center fielder in baseball, but it’s sort of hard to square the raw stats with what the more pessimistic advanced stats are saying. Choo’s 70 putouts rank 10th among big-league center fielders. He’s caught 8.75 percent of the Reds’ balls in play allowed; last season, Cincinnati’s Drew Stubbs, who’s generally acknowledged to be an excellent center fielder, caught 8.59 percent. With Stubbs in center, Reds pitchers allowed a .379 SLG on balls in play and allowed opposing batters to reach base at a .302 clip. With Choo in center, Reds pitchers have allowed a .365 SLGBIP and a .291 reach-base rate. And the Reds’ defensive efficiency has improved from .712 to .720.

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Pitcher Profile: Jorda... (05/07)
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Overthinking It: This ... (05/03)
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