Baseball

Shin-Soo Choo Heads Home to South Korea

Shin-Soo Choo’s seven-year contract with the Rangers didn’t end the way anyone wanted it to, either in the grand scheme or the specifics. In a season already shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, he missed additional time due to oblique and calf strains, then sprained his right hand on September 7. He recovered in time to return to the lineup for the season’s final game, beat out a bunt to lead off the home half of the first inning… and then sprained his left ankle tripping over first base. D’oh!

Alas, that might have been the final play of Choo’s major league career. Though the 38-year-old outfielder/DH sought a contract for the 2021 season and had interest from as many as eight teams (some of them contenders), earlier this week he agreed to return to his native South Korea via a one-year deal with the SK Wyverns of the Korea Baseball Organization. “I want to play in Korea because I want to play in front of my parents and I want to give back to Korean fans,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Jeff Wilson.

Via Yonhap News’ Jeeho Yoo, Choo will make 2.7 billion won, the equivalent of $2.4 million, of which he’ll donate 1 billion won (about $900,000) to charity. For as modest as that salary seems, it’s a league record:

Though born in Busan, South Korea in 1982, Choo has never played in the KBO. Instead he became something of a trailblazer, signing with the Mariners out of high school after leading South Korea to victory in the 2000 World Junior Baseball Championship, where he earned MVP and Best Pitcher (!) honors. By reaching the majors on April 21, 2005, he became just the second South Korea-born position players to do so, after Hee-Seop Choi. By that point, nine South Korea-born pitchers had followed in the wake of Chan Ho Park, who debuted in 1994. It took awhile for Choo’s major league career to get off the ground, and he lost significant time to a variety of injuries, but among players whose careers began in this millennium and have made at least 3,000 plate appearances, his .377 on-base percentage ranks 14th:

Highest On-Base Percentages of Post-2000 Players

Minimum 3,000 PA for players who debuted in 2001 or later.

Choo has the third-lowest slugging percentage and sixth-lowest batting average of that group, but even given that and his defensive deficits (-36.4 UZR and -68 DRS, not to mention about 19% of his career PA taken as a designated hitter), his value within that group is tied for 15th. Between his outstanding plate discipline (12.1% walk rate, 23.3% out-of-zone swing rate), decent pop (218 career homers, with 20 or more in seven of his nine seasons qualifying for the batting title), and speed and baserunning smarts (157 stolen bases, a 74.1% success rate and 21.4 baserunning runs), he made for an exceptional tablesetter. He took 47% of his plate appearances from the leadoff spot and 81% from the top third of the lineup.

After debuting in 2005, Choo’s major league career took awhile to truly get off the ground. He played just 14 games for Seattle in ’05–06, going 2-for-29 before being one of two players traded to Cleveland for Ben Broussard on July 26, 2006. Two days later, in his debut with his new club, he walked twice and homered off former teammate Felix Hernandez, but he played in just 51 games in ’06–07 before being sidelined by Tommy John surgery on his left (throwing) elbow. Prior to the injury, Choo hit only .260/.342/.401 (93 wRC+) in 220 plate appearances, but once he recovered, he showed definitively that a South Korean position player could hit well enough for the bigs. From 2008 to ’13, he hit a combined .290/.392/.469 (136 wRC+) and averaged 17 homers, 17 stolen bases, and 4.5 WAR, numbers suppressed by his losing nearly half of the 2011 season to a fractured left thumb that required surgery as well as a recurrent oblique strain. That he wasn’t selected for a single All-Star appearance during this time was an injustice; it took until 2018 for him to be recognized in that capacity.

In the midst of his Cleveland tenure, in 2009 Choo joined the South Korea national baseball team and homered twice to help them to a second-place finish in the World Baseball Classic; one of his homers came in the championship game off Japan’s Hisashi Iwakuma. A year later, he helped South Korea win the gold medal in the Asian Games, and in doing so earned an exemption from the two years of mandatory military service that would have further disrupted his major league career.

Traded to the Reds in December 2012 as part of a three-way, nine-player blockbuster that sent Didi Gregorius from Cincinnati to Arizona and Trevor Bauer from Arizona to Cleveland, Choo set career highs with a 150 wRC+ and 6.4 WAR the following year, that while reaching the twin plateaus of 20 homers and 20-steals for the third time. A free agent after the season, the 31-year-old outfielder landed a monster seven-year, $130 million deal with the Rangers.

Alas, the contract did not play out particularly well. Choo was limited to 123 games and a 101 wRC+ in 2014 before undergoing season-ending surgeries to remove a bone spur in his left elbow and repair cartilage in his left ankle. While he played 145 to 151 games in four of the next five seasons, he made four trips to the disabled list in 2016 for a variety of injuries that limited him to just 48 games, capped by a left forearm fracture that required surgery in mid-August. He did return in time for the postseason, though the Rangers were bounced out of the first round by the Blue Jays, just as they had been the year before.

Three times in the deal’s first six years, Choo managed a wRC+ only a point or two above league average, and a WAR of less than 1.0. Only twice did he exceed 2.0, with a high of 3.4 (and a 128 wRC+) in 2015. For the life of the pact, he accumulated just 8.9 WAR while hitting for a 111 RC+, though he did enter 2020 on a high note, having enjoyed back-to-back productive seasons for the first time since joining the Rangers via a 4.0-WAR, 114 wRC+ run in 2018–19, including a career-high 24 homers in the latter season. His follow-up couldn’t live up to that modest standard amid the injuries, however. In just 33 games last year, he hit .236/.323/.400 with five homers, a 97 wRC+, and zero WAR.

While his deal was something of a dud, Choo was by all accounts not only a consummate professional during his Rangers tenure but also a first-class teammate and mentor and a dedicated member of the community. This past April, with the majors and minors shut down due to the pandemic, Choo donated $1,000 apiece to 190 Rangers minor leaguers, no strings attached, to help them cope with the loss of their already-meager incomes. Around the same time, he also pledged $200,000 to the Community Chest of Korea in Daegu for coronavirus relief. In November, he donated funds to add exterior lighting to the Texas Rangers MLB Youth Academy in West Dallas. He was the Rangers’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, which annually recognizes the major league player “who best represents the game through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”

Choo’s prolonged stateside success did not herald an influx of South Korean position players into MLB. Prior to this season, just seven such countrymen reached the majors in his wake. Jung Ho Kang, ByungHo Park, Hyun Soo Kim, Dae-Ho Lee, and Jae-Gyun Hwang all arrived after successful runs in the KBO, but only Kang stayed in MLB for longer than two seasons, though a series of arrests for driving under the influence curtailed his career. All but Kang returned to South Korea and were still playing in the KBO as recently as last season. Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi followed in Choo’s footsteps, signing with the Mariners out of high school; to date, he’s just the fourth South Korean player to accumulate 1,000 plate appearances in the majors, after Choo, Hee-Seop Choi, and Kang. Choo’s career numbers, including his 1,671 hits, tower over the field to such an extent that in most categories, they’re more than the other eight South Korea-born players (a total that additionally includes the U.S.-adopted Rob Refsnyder) combined. That hit total is second only to Ichiro Suzuki among Asian-born players, and he ranks first in home runs with 218.

This season, another South Korean will join their ranks, as Ha-seong Kim signed a four-year, $28 million deal with the Padres after they won his posting rights. A shortstop and third baseman for the Kiwoom Heroes, the 25-year-old Kim is in the process of learning second base and the outfield, since he’s not going to beat out Fernando Tatis Jr. or Manny Machado. “I’d like to play as well as Choo Shin-soo did,” Kim told reporters in Arizona upon learning of Choo’s move to the KBO. “He put together such a good career in the U.S., and helped raise the profile of Korean baseball. I think players in Korea will be able to learn so much from Choo.”

According to FanGraphs alumnus Sung Min Kim, the Wyverns acquired the rights to Choo via a special 2007 draft of players who had been overseas for five years. Those rights can’t be traded, which prevented Choo from joining the Busan-based Lotte Giants, for whom his uncle Jeong-tae Park played second base from 1991 to 2004.

The Wyverns (those are two-legged dragons, if you need a refresher) have fallen upon hard times, finishing ninth in the 10-team league last year with a 51-92-1 record; only the Hanwha Eagles (46-95-3) were worse. That’s a rapid drop for a team that won the Korean Series in 2018 and finished the ’19 season in second place, with the same record (88-55-1) as the Doosan Bears but bumped down due to head-to-head records. They were swept by the Kiwoom Heroes in the Playoff round.

What’s more, the Wyverns are in the midst of an identity crisis. Based in Incheon, a city in northwestern South Korea, they were recently sold to Shinsegae Group, with their E-Mart subsidiary taking over the team’s management, and are due to be renamed and rebranded next month. As MyKBO’s Dan Kurtz explained recently, they’ll wear their Incheon uniforms until new ones are introduced on March 6. Based on trademark applications and domain registrations, all signs point to the team becoming the SSG Electros.

By any name, Choo’s new team could use whatever life remains in his bat, as the Wyverns ranked second-to-last in both scoring (4.40 runs per game, 0.76 below league average) and slugging percentage (.383, 26 points below average) in 2020. Whether this is the capstone of an impressive and somewhat underappreciated career, or the start of a substantial second act, here’s hoping Choo’s KBO run is an enjoyable one.

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