With just over three weeks of the 2015 MLB season now in the books, the Texas Rangers find themselves exactly where many of the more critical pundits figured they would be: Dead last in the AL West.
Losing Derek Holland until mid-season after only 9 pitches was an unwelcome blow, and the rotation has suffered, but beyond pitching problems, the offense that was supposed to keep this ball club afloat until any number of pitchers returned from injury has been virtually non-existent.
Prince Fielder, to the surprise of many, has been a lone bright spot in the lineup. Adrian Beltre, however, has started off slow. Then again, that's nothing we've never seen before -- see 2011, 2012, and 2013 -- so there's a better-than-decent chance that he gets going and things start looking a bit better.
Perhaps most concerning among what was supposed to be a three-headed monster in the middle of the lineup has been the performance -- or lack thereof -- of Shin-Soo Choo.
We're now 592 plate appearances into the Texas career of the $130 million man, and what we've seen so far hasn't been pretty. To be fair to Choo, after a hot start in 2014, a turned ankle appeared to derail things, as he required both ankle and elbow surgery after the season. Heading into 2015, all reports indicated that he was healthy and ready to go. And yet, almost a month in, we've still yet to see a glimpse of the guy the Rangers thought they were getting on the free agent market.
His ISO -- a measure of a player's raw power output -- sits at .126 since the beginning of 2014. That's considered below-average, but you'd have to imagine that ankle and elbow injuries might be partially responsible for that. Then again -- and with the disclaimer that, of course, the sample size is small -- he's supposedly healthy this season, and his 2015 ISO sits at a robust .077. That's beyond awful.
Texas knew Choo wasn't going to provide any value on defense -- although ironically that's been the best part of his game so far this season -- so there are no real surprises there. The grand total of 3 stolen bases in a Texas uniform (caught stealing 4 times), however, has been unexpected (in the bad way). After having at least 20 stolen bases with the Reds in each of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Texas had hoped that he would add another base-stealing threat to the lineup. Instead, he's been mostly a sitting duck, and that's when he's actually been on base.
For all the talk about everything else, the one highly-touted skill that Shin-Soo Choo was supposed to bring to Texas was his high OBP. He put up a great .423 OBP in 2013 with the Reds. He was a patient hitter. He didn't swing at bad pitches.
So as Monday night's contest against the Mariners wrapped up and Choo came to the plate in the bottom of the 9th inning representing the tying run, it happened. We witnessed perhaps the most awful plate appearance I've seen from Shin-Soo Choo since he first put on a Rangers uniform.
It's clearly the plate approach of a frustrated player, one that's pressing in an effort to produce something, anything of value for his team. However, if he's unable to provide a solid approach at the plate, what exactly is it that he has to offer to the Rangers -- or any ball club, for that matter?
Some of the approach can obviously be explained simply as pressing. A few hits, and perhaps the confidence level goes up, the approach evens back out, and we're not having this conversation anymore. Nonetheless, I submit another possible explanation below.
In the image above, you can see a heat map that represents all 121 pitches since the beginning of the 2014 season that were outside of the strike zone and have been called strikes -- that is, Choo did not offer a swing.
Choo has already been a victim of these pitches 14 times in the 2015 season, a staggering number when you consider that he's only stepped up for 63 plate appearances. That means that over 22 percent of the time he steps up to bat, his plate appearance is fundamentally altered by a poor call.
Of course, it can't all be pinned simply on bad strike calls. The name of the game is adjustments, and to that end, it appears that Shin-Soo Choo has been unable to do just that. And that's where we get to the main question: What exactly is the problem?
There's the more positive option that Choo, like Adrian Beltre, is just off to a slow start, needs to see the ball land for a hit a few times, and he'll be good. His 2015 BABIP of .111 would seem to help support this option.
There's a less-positive option that we're missing something. Is Shin-Soo Choo hurt and trying to play through injury? He did the same through much of 2014, but at least we had some indication that he had a bad ankle at the time. This season, there has been no such indication.
The third option would be the worst of the three. What if Shin-Soo Choo is an outlier? What if his skillset isn't aging as well as expected, and he'll never come close to being the player the Rangers signed to a 7-year, $130 million deal? It's an option that I'll admit I don't readily want to consider much more than I have here, but also one that has been creeping up more often as of late.
Whatever the issue is, for the Rangers to have any kind of success this season, it's going to need more offensive production out of the lineup. Things tend to level out with larger sample sizes, and that should go a long way toward making things look a bit better say, a month from now.
When that time comes, however, Shin-Soo Choo needs to be right in the middle of the regression to the mean. In this case, that regression should bring him closer to his career norms, and not hovering at or around "bust" status. If not, it's a contract that may haunt the Texas Rangers far longer than any of us might like.