The Rays front office deserves plenty of credit for turning Brad Miller into Ji-Man Choi. While the Choi experiment is still in its early days, it has already paid dividends. Through 35 games with the Rays, Choi has slashed .282/.380/.513 while nearly contributing 1 WAR. That’s a 4 WAR pace over a 162 game season. Choi has gotten the majority of his looks vs. right handed pitchers, and you have to wonder if he has done enough to warrant a spot on the 2019 roster.
Choi may not be your tradition, 35 HR first baseman. He hits the ball hard, but he’s more of a gap to gap guy. In this article, we’re going to focus solely on Choi’s production vs. right-handed pitching.
Digging into his numbers, you’ll notice that his launch angle vs. fastballs is at 17°. That angle results in a HR only 1.1% of the time. In that regard, Choi falls right in line with Freddie Freeman and Yonder Alonso. Out of those two, Alonso is the only one who doesn’t get regular AB’s vs. LHP. Yet Alonso has been able to produce a solid output at the plate vs. RHP (and a nice contract) that’s resulted in 18 homers, and a .327 wOBA. Looking at 2018, at least, Alonso seems like a good comp for Choi.
Choi produces an average exit velocity of 92.5 MPH vs. fastballs. That puts him right in between Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter, both respected, though different, hitters at the big league level. Choi’s wOBA also checks in at .485. He can obviously crush anything hard that a pitcher throws, and that alone brings value. It really doesn’t matter if he’s not getting the ball high in the air like most of the league is doing. Granted, the Rays could use someone who can get the ball in the outfield gaps.
The concerning aspect regarding Choi isn’t whether he can play at the Major League level. We know he can. Playing in the AL also gives him an advantage as he can just DH, and the Rays could most definitely come out ahead just by giving him a roster spot.
The main issue here is his trouble with the curve (ba-dum-tiss), or breaking stuff. Against anything off-speed, Choi holds a respectable .295 wOBA, which is pretty much league average. However against breaking pitches as a whole in 2018, Choi has only mustered a .233 woBA and an anemic exit velocity of 82.6 MPH. That would put him right between Josh Bell and Logan Morrison.
It’s not reasonable to assume that every Major League player must find success against any and every pitch. However, it is reasonable to show some concern towards a player that’s bat first only and likely to get his bulk of playing time against righties. If we can figure out that Choi can’t hit a breaking ball, then opposing teams are likely to exploit this weakness as well.
Now, Choi has been fantastic and I don’t mean to sound like a Debbie Downer. Choi has shown improvement since the beginning of August. Now keep in mind, these are still small samples and we’ll need to see more of this spread out over a longer time period. Since 8/1, Choi has produced a .347 wOBA against offspeed pitches, and a .431 wOBA against breaking balls. That’s right around the time Choi began to see increased playing time, and that could very well have factored into his latest improvements.
He’s definitely an offensive threat. He’s got a quick twitch swing that produces plenty of bat speed, and you have to wonder if there’s still some power in there waiting to be tapped.
The Rays might run into a bit of a roster crunch moving into next season, which could leave Choi, with his limited defensive flexibility, as the odd man out. But you have to assume that they’re pleased with what they’ve seen and that will of course carry a lot of weight as we head into 2019.