By Marc Normandin
The Reds are in third place in the National League Central. They entered the season as the favorites in the division, and as they're all of three games back and it's just the second week of May, that claim has not been damaged enough to be disputed yet. There isn't one lone reason for how they've been able to hold on while so much of their lineup fails to replicate their success 2012 success, but if you had to pick an avatar for the success they have managed, it would be Shin-Soo Choo.
Choo was acquired this past off-season in the three-team swap that sent Didi Gregorius to the Diamondbacks and Trevor Bauer to the Indians. He was supposed to add extra punch to a lineup that didn't seem to need any, but instead, he's been carrying most of it on his back while hitting homers, drawing walks, and taking one -- okay, 11 -- for the team. Choo has been highly underrated for quite some time now, in part due to a disappointing 2011 season that still produced an above-average line: from 2008 through 2012, minimum 2,500 plate appearances, Choo ranked 13th in OPS+, tying him with Carlos Beltran and David Ortiz, while putting him a single point of OPS+ behind Josh Hamilton. With the lack of attention Choo received in Cleveland, you'd never know he was that productive.
Reds fans are seeing that now, though, as Choo is hitting .323/.453/.569 with a 173 OPS+. He's leading the NL in runs, on-base percentage, and hit by pitches, has drawn 20 walks, mashed 17 extra-base hits, and just for kicks, has yet to ground into a double play. Part of it is luck -- he has a .376 batting average on balls in play -- but not all of it: his career BABIP is .354, and that's in over 3,100 plate appearances. At this point, it's safe to say he regularly posts lofty BABIP.
The real change is in his environment. He's still in Ohio, but the shift from the northern part of the state to the south has also brought him from an environment that was friendly to lefty hitters to one that's even better to them. Progressive Field was never tough on Choo, who hit .301/.394/.498 there. But he's off to an even better start at the Great American Ballpark, hitting .388 with a .701 slugging. Now, that's in 18 games, so let's not get too excited, but there are reasons to think his home numbers will be better than his past ones.
GAB is a better stadium for left-handed home run power, so Choo has that bit of obviousness going for him. But he also has fantastic numbers going the other way and up the middle in his career, as he's hit .373 with a .621 slugging on pulled balls, but .392 and .671 the other way and .391/.613 up the middle. Choo can just flat-out hit, and Great American Ballpark rewards right-handers far, far more than Progressive. Choo isn't right-handed, but he hits so well the opposite way, and with power, that he can still gain from those dimensions in a way he hasn't been able to before. According to Stat Corner, which has three-year park factors broken down into components like hit type and handedness, Progressive is about 20 percent more difficult for right-handers to produce runs in, and nearly 30 percent more difficult to hit homers out of than a neutral park. GAB, on the other hand, boosts right-handed run production by nine percent, and homers by 49 percent. It shouldn't be a surprise that Choo is already seeing the benefits of that stark contrast in environment, early or no, and while he might not hit at this extreme level all year, a career year should not be out of the question.
So Choo has been great for more than half-a-decade now, and is in a park that will further emphasize what he's great at. The timing couldn't have been more perfect, as, even with Choo and Joey Votto's typical greatness, the rest of the Reds' lineup is dead in the water. Todd Frazier and Brandon Phillips have both been slightly above average, but Jay Bruce (.248/.301/.366), Chris Heisey (.173/.195/.293 in 23 games) and Zack Cozart (.217/.252/.364) have been abysmal. Then there's Ryan Ludwick, who logged two plate appearances in one game before dislocating his shoulder.
There's something fitting about Choo coming in and essentially hitting enough for two after Ludwick went down, because Ludwick was responsible for the same last season when Votto was injured and the Reds were in need of a threat in the middle of their lineup. Choo has to keep at that while the rest of the Reds scuffle, but if they're able to get back on track and he keeps crushing it, then the offense is going to be as dangerous as preseason prognosticators believed, Ludwick or no.
He's not perfect: Choo's defense, even in right field, hasn't been a hallmark of his game. He's had his moments, but as he's gotten older, he's had the wrong kind of moments, too.
He's been the Reds' center fielder in 34 games this year, and if advanced defensive systems are to be believed, it's not going well. Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average has Choo at about two runs below average already, Fangraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating puts him at nearly -6 runs, and Baseball-Reference has him pegged at -7 runs at the moment. Consider that we're a little more than a fifth of the way through the season, and you can see where things, even in the most-optimistic view of FRAA, can get bleak for Choo in the field.
He's hitting so well, however, that it barely matters. Baseball-Reference already has him down for 1.3 wins above replacement despite the awful glove work, Fangraphs has him closer to two wins, and Prospectus has him at two on the nose. Extrapolate that, and Choo ends up with the best season he's ever had, terrible defense or no. While, as said, he's unlikely to be quite this good all year long at the plate, even taking it down a notch should be more than enough to offset his glove.
That's good news for the Reds' hopes, and even better news for their present, when Choo is one of the few pieces actually doing what he's supposed to. They won't have him for long, as he's a free agent after this season, but if he keeps hitting like this, he might just accomplish the one-year goal they had in mind when they acquired him, anyway.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written forBaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.