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Season Preview: Ji-Man Choi

He should continue to mash right handed pitchers, but don’t expect more splits at first

Tampa Bay Rays v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

While maybe not the “Official” face of the franchise, Ji-Man Choi has quickly become a fan favorite since coming over from the Brewers in 2018, and is arguably the unofficial face of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Ji-Man Choi is slotted to be the starting 1B for the Rays in 2021, at least against righties, but with a lingering hamstring injury that sidelined him for 18 games in 2020 and may delay his 2021 debut, what can we expect from him?

Although we all have happy memories of his dominance of Yankee ace Gerrit Cole, the shortened 2020 season was a bit of a downer for Ji-Man Choi. In 145 PA, Choi posted a .230/.331/.410 with a 13.8% walk rate, 24.8% strikeout rate, a .290 BABIP and 103 wRC+, which was a tad worse than 2019 where Choi had a .261/.363./.459 with a 13.1% walk rate, 22.2% strikeout rate, a .303 BABIP and 121 wRC+.

According to Baseball Savant - a few of Ji-Man Choi’s advanced statistics: Exit Velocity, Barrel %, xwOBA, xSLG, were all trending downwards, and Choi dropped from the top 50% percentile in 2019 to the bottom of the league in 2021 very quickly.

Ji-Man Choi Percentile Rankings Career
Baseball Savant

This is more than likely due to small sample size — we probably can’t read too much into under- (or over-) performances from a dramatically short season. For example: Choi sacrificed some line drives (20.2% in 2020 vs 23.7% in 2019) for more fly balls (40.4% in 2020 vs 34.7%), but this may be a fluke and not evidence of a new approach.

Ji-Man 2021 Projections

The projections foresee a slight rebound for Choi:

  • ZiPS: 116 G - .245/.344/.433 - 108 wRC+ in 427 PA
  • Steamer: 104 G - .241/.345/.426 - 109 wRC+ in 444 PA
  • THE BAT & THE BAT X: 104 G - .240/.340/.418 - 112 wRC+ in 445 PA

Games played seem a little low, as the expectation is that Ji-Man will be the everyday starting 1B against righties and a likely mid-game replacement if team start a lefty but bring in a right-handed reliever.

Projections predict at least some 2021 rebound for Ji-Man Choi, but what does the man himself think?

Here are some quotations from Ji-Man’s interview with the Korean media over this past offseason.

Please note: Homin Lee has kindly translated Ji-Man Choi comments to the Korean media in this section.
  • Switch hitting : He gave it up completely. He had always been dissatisfied with not having a chance to face a left-handed pitcher as a left-handed batter, and had thought a switch-hitter attempt was a good opportunity to overcome it. However, he realized that it would take a lot of training to succeed as a switch-hitter, and he has given it up. This means that we will never see this again:
  • Hamstring : He couldn’t play many games because of his hamstring. It wasn’t good a month before he got hurt. To prevent such injuries, he spent the morning at the hospital and the afternoon at the training ground during the off-season.
  • Split : Unfortunately, we may not see much of his split. He said he will refrain from such actions this year because he knows that split would be too much for his body. It is said that he did so unconsciously last year because of his desire to win. He said his flexibility is not innate. He signed with the Mariners as a catcher, and he gave up that position because of a pelvic surgery. Since then, his pelvis has become deformed, but his flexibility has increased in the process of just overcoming it with Yoga.
  • Gerrit Cole : He revealed several secrets to dealing with Cole. He said watching the pitching rubber where Cole put his foot on, his glove position, and release point told the story. I think the details should be kept a secret forever. But let’s keep looking at this:
  • Arbitration : He seemed disappointed at the club’s offer.

But he had a great interview before the hearing that he won. Everyone seems fine.

Finally, Ji-Man Choi’s goal for this season:

The most important goal of next season is not to get hurt. That way, you can play all the games and show good play. Is it too boring? Tampa Bay isn’t a team that loses easily even if a good player is gone. They’re like wizards. There are many good players in the minor leagues. The first goal is to beat the Yankees

Choi is excited and looking forward to beating the Yankees in 2021?

Same here, Ji-Man.

Choi is currently on the sidelines following a cortisol shot in his knee, but will resume baseball activities on Wednesday. That timeline will likely delay his start to the regular season.