Yesterday, with chants of “JI-MAN CHOI” raining down on him, the Rays firstbaseman reached base four times, on a single and three walks.
It was a strong performance by the TB fan favorite—possibly with the help of some crowd-influenced ball-strike calls, so the fans should feel good about this one. The way those at bats played out were also a perfect example of what’s been a season long battle in the up-and-away quadrant between Choi and right-handed pitchers.
And with the righty fireballer Gerrit Cole up next, how that same battle plays out will be a key to whether or not the Rays playoff run continues.
Here’s how the Astros (Justin Verlander, Jose Urquidy, and Will Harris) attacked Choi on Tuesday night:
And here’s what the umpire called on those pitches:
You can see the full, interactive versions of these graphs here at Texas Leaguers.
The approach is clear. These are from the catcher’s perspective, so picture Choi standing in the box to the right of the strike zone. The Astros righties wanted to go after Choi with fastballs up, particularly up and away.
Choi didn’t hit those fastballs, but he also refused to chase, and in this case that was good enough for a monster on-base day.
Up, Up, And Away: The Story of 2019
It wasn’t just yesterday that right-handed pitchers attacked Choi in that quadrant, it’s been their consistent approach to him all year long.
Moving over to Brooks Baseball’s tools, this is where those righties have located their four-seam fastballs against him:
And similarly, all season long, Choi has refused to chase, maintaining his strong sense of the strikezone.
In that very furthest up-and-away zone, the location where opposing righties have gone most often against Choi, he’s only chased twice all year. In the two ball zones next to it, he’s only chased 10 times all season. And he’s done this while swinging at the nearby strikes at a healthy rate.
So if he won’t chase up and away, why do pitchers keep going there?
Basically it’s because if they’re able to find the corner of the zone, rather than off the edges of it, good things happen for the pitcher.
While Choi has been excellent at judging balls and strikes on those fastballs on the up-and-away corner, he hasn’t been very good at hitting them.
As you can see above, that corner is his biggest whiff location, and as you can see below, he’s done no damage on the swings when he’s managed to make contact.
Also, looking again at the slugging scatter plot, it’s not safe for pitchers to throw Choi a fastball that drifts to the middle third of the plate, or to the bottom two thirds of the strike zone.
Those are the pitches that he’s driven.
Like this fastball from Zach Littell, that came just a little bit too far in off the corner.
Unfortunately for the Rays, and with all due respect to the Twins righty, Gerrit Cole is not like Zach Littell.
The Game against Cole
So the game that righties play against Ji-Man Choi is about finding that upper outside corner of the strike zone. When they find it, they can beat him with their fastballs. When they miss up or away, he takes the pitch and gets ahead in the count. If they try something different, and they miss down, or miss in, he hits the ball hard.
But in game two of this series, when Choi faced Gerritt Cole, the script was a little bit different. For this one you really should click over to Texas Leaguers, where you can hover over this graph and see the result of each pitch.
Basically, Cole missed his spot, and lived over the plate. It was exactly the way that pitchers have gone wrong against Choi this season. But because Cole’s fastball is so good, he decisively won the battle, striking Choi out three times.
Choi put none of those fastballs in the zone in play. He fouled off three of them, he whiffed on four, took two for strikes, and took one at the bottom edge of the zone for a ball.
If Cole’s execution of his four-seam fastball location is the same second time around as it was in the first game, then Choi has to do better. He has to hit those fastballs that come into his wheelhouse. That’s a tall order against Cole’s heat, but having gotten a good look at said heat just five days ago, maybe Choi will get it timed up.
And maybe those lingering echoes from the Tropicana Field crowd will help.