Since being acquired in 2018, Ji-Man Choi has provided the Rays organization and its fanbase with a seemingly endless supply of good vibes and excellent performance. However, although the vibes are still well stocked, the performance has tanked over the past several weeks.
His offensive production has dwindled to the point that he might as well try to start hitting right-handed again, as the results couldn’t possibly be much worse. Since the start of play on July 4th, Choi is hitting just .149/.252/.228, and since returning from the All-Star Break he is hitting a lowly .123/.209/.210.
Choi has been the worst player on the Rays roster in terms of fWAR (-0.7) over the last two months, and among players with at least 90 plate appearances, he has the 3rd lowest fWAR in all of baseball.
It’s a far cry from how he began the season, as Choi started off the 2022 campaign with production that showed him to be pacing a career year. Before falling into his prolonged slump on July 4th, Choi had been hitting .290/.392/.481 with 7 HR over 217 plate appearances, registering 155 wRC+.
In examining Choi’s numbers and how they’ve differentiated from his early season success to his late season struggles, some things clearly stand out.
Choi is killing gophers
Groundballs are not the key to being an offensive force. The more you hit the ball on the ground, the more likely you are to get out.
Before the start of play on July 4th, Choi had a 41.1% groundball rate and a 33.9% flyball rate; since the start of play on July 4th, Choi groundball percentage is now up to 57.7% and his flyball rate is down to 21.1%. For Choi in 2022, he has a 231 wRC+ on flyballs and a 50 wRC+ on groundballs.
League wide, hitters have a 36 wRC+ when drilling the ball into the ground compared to a 129 wRC+ when lifting the ball.
Thus, the clear advantage is to hit flyballs...which Choi is not doing.
It should be noted that Choi is still hitting the ball well, when he actually makes contact as his average exit velocity is at the same clip as it was prior to his slump (92 compared to 91.8).
During the month of August, Choi’s strikeout rate has ballooned to 42.3% For the majority of his big league career, Choi has always enjoyed excellent plate discipline, but that has dissipated over the course of his slump with Choi routinely expanding his zone and struggling to make contact. Generally, Choi chases pitches out of the zone around 23% of the time; that has risen to 27.7% while his contact percentage has dwindled to 62.6% for the month of August.
When Choi does make contact, it’s the wrong kind of contact, as he routinely hitting groundballs, leading to low offensive output. As Choi has struggled to make contact, it’s not as simple to say he has been expanding the zone in hopes of trying to make contact more often, because according to the eye test, he’s also begun struggling against fastballs.
As a result, there is a first half Choi and a second half Choi.
First half Choi hit .278/.385/.449 (146 wRC+) and second half Choi is hitting .123/.209/.210 (23 wRC+). For Choi to regain his former self, he’ll need to readjust at the plate if he wants to support the Rays in their playoff hopes.
For their part, the Rays have tried giving Choi additional time off with his playing time being reduced over the past month.
Although the Rays have played 25 games in August, Choi has appeared in just 16 of those contests. It may just be one of those baseball things where Choi has to work through the issues at the plate and eventually things well return to normal for him... or one of those baseball things where this is the new Ji-Man Choi.
And time is running out. If this is who Choi is now, there is a plethora of players, both on the active roster and in the minor leagues, champing at the bit for an opportunity to join the team and play in the postseason. September callups begin soon, and when it comes to finding playing time for those players, it’s Choi’s spot in the lineup that may be the most vulnerable. And after that? Choi’s final year of arbitration is next year, meaning his contract is not guaranteed.
Ji-Man Choi will have limited opportunities to turn his season around, and if he cannot, this could mean the end of his time with the Tampa Bay Rays.