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Ji-Man and the Masters of Right-Handed Pitchers

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The Rays added an under-the-radar impact bat in 2018; Choi will play a key role in the 2019 lineup

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is fun. Yes, there are lots of rules, many of which are not written down but you will certainly hear about them from folks who are more than happy to take time away from shaking their fist at the clouds. But the game is at its best when players are doing amazing things, and enjoying every moment of it.

Ji-Man Choi personifies fun baseball.

The South Korean slugger broke onto the scene in 2018 with the Rays and stole our hearts with his towering homers, his irresistible dance moves, and a palpable joy for the game.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Tampa Bay Rays Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The talk of the off season, thanks in large part to speculation from every corner of the Rays newsverse, was the Rays were in position and eager to add an impact bat. Of course we never had confirmation the Rays were definitely going to add a major bat, but the stars seemed aligned.

But then the constellations looked a bit different once we took out our telescopes and looked up.

With a several big upgrades available at DH, and an overflowing 40 man roster, the Rays made the tough call to move on from CJ Cron. It’s not a Rays off season without a news- shaking surprise DFA. Cron’s departure, fans and media speculated, could be paving the way for a big free agent signing.

And there were some strong-bat-no-glove DH types to be had. Nelson Cruz, was a free agent. The Indians were seeking a trade partner for Edwin Encarnacion — he went to Seattle, but the general consensus was that E5 probably shouldn’t be buying Puget Sound real estate because Jerry DiPoto was itching to push the “trade” button once again.

The Rays lost out on Nelson Cruz to the Twins —the same Minnesota Twins who also took the aforementioned CJ Cron. Encarnacion looks like he’ll be breaking camp with the Mariners. The Rays instead settled for a 2017 CJ Cron-esq bounce back/breakout candidate in Avisail Garcia.

For many Rays fans, this remains the most frustrating and disappointing part of the off season. The big name, huge impact bat is just a rebound candidate off of the DFA pile?! The Rays got outspent by the Twins?!? To borrow the words of future poet laureate DJ Khaled: did the Rays, in fact, play themselves?

All of this preamble brings me to the man of the hour.

Rays fans, Ji-Man Choi is the answer to all of your DH-related questions.

The Rays are taking a gamble and believing that Ji-Man Choi has the bat he showed when he was traded to Tampa Bay. Is this a smart gamble?

The Rays were among many teams to be rumored to be interested in Choi, and even some rumors went so far as to suggest they offered him a major league contract before he signed a minor league deal with Milwaukee last year. When Choi became available via trade, the Rays were able to finally get the powerful left-hander.

With the Rays, Choi slashed .269/.370/.506 with a whopping 141 wRC+ and 8 HR. Here is the list of Rays that hit the ball harder than Choi in 2018:

  • Tommy Pham

That’s the list.

Barrels are a fun Statcast stat, but one that often is used without mentioning the contact percentage of the player. If you don’t make contact, it doesn’t really matter if when you eventually do it’s really well struck. Well, that’s not a problem for Choi.

Ji-Man had the 10th best contact percentage on the Rays at 74.8%, and had the very best Barrel/PA% (a Barrel every 7.2 PA) of any Rays player.

That’s a few ways to say: Ji-Man can rake.

Not only did Choi immediately show off a quick, powerful left handed swing, but a supernova of personality.

Immediately Choi became one of the most likable and gif-able players on the team:

Ji-Man also brought us one of the most improbable and exciting moments of the 2018 season: a 2 out, walkoff home run against All Star closer Brad Hand.

Now, aside from that unreal walk-off home run, Ji-Man Choi will not be expected to do much damage against lefthanded pitchers in 2019. Against LHP for his career Choi has hit a dreadful 31 wRC+ (!). But the Rays have plenty of options to face southpaws. Choi is here to mash righties and be a long side of the platoon DH.

The projection systems certainly believe he can be that masher in a platoon role.

Choi 2019

Projections Slash WAR
Projections Slash WAR
ZiPS .233/.329/403 0.7 WAR
Steamer .241/.334/.418 0.8 fWAR
PECOTA .238/.326/.417 1 WARP

Choi fits a particular role with the Rays. He’s not ideally suited to play fulltime DH thanks to those extreme splits. In contrast, for example, C.J. Cron has an identical 111 wRC+ against both RHP and LHP. Nelson Cruz, of course, is the proven better bat; he crushes RHP (127 wRC+) and just obliterates LHP (146 wRC+). Of course, Cruz is incapable of playing in the field and is going to be turning 39 years old in 2019.

As the long side of a platoon, Choi fits his role perfectly. Limiting Choi against all/most LHP will allow the Rays to get the best out of Choi’s bat. For his career, Choi has averaged over .800 OPS and 120 wRC+ against LHP, while maintaining a very strong 12.2 BB% and 23.1 K%.

Ji-Man Choi is a very good left-handed slugger. He should be good in 2019. The big key, and the big gamble, will be just how good. The Rays had a chance to majorly upgrade the DH spot, and it would have cost a few extra million and the loss of Ji-Man Choi from the roster. The Rays like what they have in Ji-Man, enough at least to keep him through a tight 40 man roster crunch, and a crowded field of vet sluggers.

If Ji-Man hits his career norms vs RHP, he will be a productive and useful player. If he struggles, Nate Lowe, or Brandon Lowe, or maybe even somebody not named Lowe, can be the next man up to take that spot as a lefty slugging 1B/DH. It seems lower risk, and there are a lot of positive outcomes, but if he does not replicate 2018 we will be left with a lot of second guessing for what could have been.

However, there is another outcome to this dice roll. One where Choi does what he did over 200 AB in 2018 in 400 AB this season. Winning on these margin bets are often the difference between a good season and a great one.

Choi can do one thing very well: crush RHP. The Rays bet is that he can do that one thing exceptionally well.

And if he does? Well, that will bring a lot of fun to Tampa Bay.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports