Shin-Soo Choo Heads Home to South Korea

Shin-Soo Choo’s seven-year contract with the Rangers didn’t end the way anyone wanted it to, either in the grand scheme or the specifics. In a season already shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, he missed additional time due to oblique and calf strains, then sprained his right hand on September 7. He recovered in time to return to the lineup for the season’s final game, beat out a bunt to lead off the home half of the first inning… and then sprained his left ankle tripping over first base. D’oh!

Alas, that might have been the final play of Choo’s major league career. Though the 38-year-old outfielder/DH sought a contract for the 2021 season and had interest from as many as eight teams (some of them contenders), earlier this week he agreed to return to his native South Korea via a one-year deal with the SK Wyverns of the Korea Baseball Organization. “I want to play in Korea because I want to play in front of my parents and I want to give back to Korean fans,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Jeff Wilson.

Via Yonhap News’ Jeeho Yoo, Choo will make 2.7 billion won, the equivalent of $2.4 million, of which he’ll donate 1 billion won (about $900,000) to charity. For as modest as that salary seems, it’s a league record:

Though born in Busan, South Korea in 1982, Choo has never played in the KBO. Instead he became something of a trailblazer, signing with the Mariners out of high school after leading South Korea to victory in the 2000 World Junior Baseball Championship, where he earned MVP and Best Pitcher (!) honors. By reaching the majors on April 21, 2005, he became just the second South Korea-born position players to do so, after Hee-Seop Choi. By that point, nine South Korea-born pitchers had followed in the wake of Chan Ho Park, who debuted in 1994. It took awhile for Choo’s major league career to get off the ground, and he lost significant time to a variety of injuries, but among players whose careers began in this millennium and have made at least 3,000 plate appearances, his .377 on-base percentage ranks 14th:

Highest On-Base Percentages of Post-2000 Players
Player Years PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Joey Votto 2007-2020 7595 .304 .419 .517 150 56.7
Mike Trout 2011-2020 5514 .304 .418 .582 172 75.7
Nick Johnson 2001-2012 3316 .268 .399 .441 126 14.9
Paul Goldschmidt 2011-2020 5621 .293 .392 .522 141 41.3
Miguel Cabrera 2003-2020 10467 .313 .391 .540 145 70.8
Joe Mauer 2004-2018 7960 .306 .388 .439 123 52.5
Bryce Harper 2012-2020 4883 .276 .387 .513 138 36.8
Freddie Freeman 2010-2020 5965 .295 .383 .509 139 37.9
Prince Fielder 2005-2016 6853 .283 .382 .506 133 27.5
Kevin Youkilis 2004-2013 4436 .281 .382 .478 127 30.2
Christian Yelich 2013-2020 4290 .296 .381 .488 135 34.4
Kris Bryant 2015-2020 3252 .280 .380 .508 137 28.4
Matt Holliday 2004-2018 7981 .299 .379 .510 135 49.7
Shin-Soo Choo 2005-2020 7157 .275 .377 .447 123 35.4
Albert Pujols 2001-2020 12394 .299 .377 .546 143 87.2
Andrew McCutchen 2009-2020 7014 .285 .376 .478 134 49.7
David Wright 2004-2018 6872 .296 .376 .491 133 52.0
Travis Hafner 2002-2013 4782 .273 .376 .498 132 22.0
Mookie Betts 2014-2020 3875 .301 .373 .522 136 40.2
Anthony Rendon 2013-2020 4159 .290 .372 .490 129 35.4
Anthony Rizzo 2011-2020 5416 .271 .372 .485 131 30.4
Matt Carpenter 2011-2020 4976 .266 .371 .457 127 30.2
Buster Posey 2009-2019 5153 .302 .370 .456 128 52.6
Josh Donaldson 2010-2020 4578 .272 .369 .508 139 42.3
Justin Turner 2009-2020 4002 .292 .369 .469 130 27.3
Minimum 3,000 PA for players who debuted in 2001 or later.

Choo has the third-lowest slugging percentage and sixth-lowest batting average of that group, but even given that and his defensive deficits (-36.4 UZR and -68 DRS, not to mention about 19% of his career PA taken as a designated hitter), his value within that group is tied for 15th. Between his outstanding plate discipline (12.1% walk rate, 23.3% out-of-zone swing rate), decent pop (218 career homers, with 20 or more in seven of his nine seasons qualifying for the batting title), and speed and baserunning smarts (157 stolen bases, a 74.1% success rate and 21.4 baserunning runs), he made for an exceptional tablesetter. He took 47% of his plate appearances from the leadoff spot and 81% from the top third of the lineup.

After debuting in 2005, Choo’s major league career took awhile to truly get off the ground. He played just 14 games for Seattle in ’05–06, going 2-for-29 before being one of two players traded to Cleveland for Ben Broussard on July 26, 2006. Two days later, in his debut with his new club, he walked twice and homered off former teammate Felix Hernandez, but he played in just 51 games in ’06–07 before being sidelined by Tommy John surgery on his left (throwing) elbow. Prior to the injury, Choo hit only .260/.342/.401 (93 wRC+) in 220 plate appearances, but once he recovered, he showed definitively that a South Korean position player could hit well enough for the bigs. From 2008 to ’13, he hit a combined .290/.392/.469 (136 wRC+) and averaged 17 homers, 17 stolen bases, and 4.5 WAR, numbers suppressed by his losing nearly half of the 2011 season to a fractured left thumb that required surgery as well as a recurrent oblique strain. That he wasn’t selected for a single All-Star appearance during this time was an injustice; it took until 2018 for him to be recognized in that capacity.

In the midst of his Cleveland tenure, in 2009 Choo joined the South Korea national baseball team and homered twice to help them to a second-place finish in the World Baseball Classic; one of his homers came in the championship game off Japan’s Hisashi Iwakuma. A year later, he helped South Korea win the gold medal in the Asian Games, and in doing so earned an exemption from the two years of mandatory military service that would have further disrupted his major league career.

Traded to the Reds in December 2012 as part of a three-way, nine-player blockbuster that sent Didi Gregorius from Cincinnati to Arizona and Trevor Bauer from Arizona to Cleveland, Choo set career highs with a 150 wRC+ and 6.4 WAR the following year, that while reaching the twin plateaus of 20 homers and 20-steals for the third time, and forging a friendship with Votto. A free agent after the season, the 31-year-old outfielder landed a monster seven-year, $130 million deal with the Rangers.

Alas, the contract did not play out particularly well. Choo was limited to 123 games and a 101 wRC+ in 2014 before undergoing season-ending surgeries to remove a bone spur in his left elbow and repair cartilage in his left ankle. While he played 145 to 151 games in four of the next five seasons, he made four trips to the disabled list in 2016 for a variety of injuries that limited him to just 48 games, capped by a left forearm fracture that required surgery in mid-August. He did return in time for the postseason, though the Rangers were bounced out of the first round by the Blue Jays, just as they had been the year before.

Three times in the deal’s first six years, Choo managed a wRC+ only a point or two above league average, and a WAR of less than 1.0. Only twice did he exceed 2.0, with a high of 3.4 (and a 128 wRC+) in 2015. For the life of the pact, he accumulated just 8.9 WAR while hitting for a 111 RC+, though he did enter 2020 on a high note, having enjoyed back-to-back productive seasons for the first time since joining the Rangers via a 4.0-WAR, 114 wRC+ run in 2018–19, including a career-high 24 homers in the latter season. His follow-up couldn’t live up to that modest standard amid the injuries, however. In just 33 games last year, he hit .236/.323/.400 with five homers, a 97 wRC+, and zero WAR.

While his deal was something of a dud, Choo was by all accounts not only a consummate professional during his Rangers tenure but also a first-class teammate and mentor and a dedicated member of the community. This past April, with the majors and minors shut down due to the pandemic, Choo donated $1,000 apiece to 190 Rangers minor leaguers, no strings attached, to help them cope with the loss of their already-meager incomes. Around the same time, he also pledged $200,000 to the Community Chest of Korea in Daegu for coronavirus relief. In November, he donated funds to add exterior lighting to the Texas Rangers MLB Youth Academy in West Dallas. He was the Rangers’ nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, which annually recognizes the major league player “who best represents the game through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”

Choo’s prolonged stateside success did not herald an influx of South Korean position players into MLB. Prior to this season, just seven such countrymen reached the majors in his wake. Jung Ho Kang, ByungHo Park, Hyun Soo Kim, Dae-Ho Lee, and Jae-Gyun Hwang all arrived after successful runs in the KBO, but only Kang stayed in MLB for longer than two seasons, though a series of arrests for driving under the influence curtailed his career. All but Kang returned to South Korea and were still playing in the KBO as recently as last season. Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi followed in Choo’s footsteps, signing with the Mariners out of high school; to date, he’s just the fourth South Korean player to accumulate 1,000 plate appearances in the majors, after Choo, Hee-Seop Choi, and Kang. Choo’s career numbers, including his 1,671 hits, tower over the field to such an extent that in most categories, they’re more than the other eight South Korea-born players (a total that additionally includes the U.S.-adopted Rob Refsnyder) combined. That hit total is second only to Ichiro Suzuki among Asian-born players, and he ranks first in home runs with 218.

This season, another South Korean will join their ranks, as Ha-seong Kim signed a four-year, $28 million deal with the Padres after they won his posting rights. A shortstop and third baseman for the Kiwoom Heroes, the 25-year-old Kim is in the process of learning second base and the outfield, since he’s not going to beat out Fernando Tatis Jr. or Manny Machado. “I’d like to play as well as Choo Shin-soo did,” Kim told reporters in Arizona upon learning of Choo’s move to the KBO. “He put together such a good career in the U.S., and helped raise the profile of Korean baseball. I think players in Korea will be able to learn so much from Choo.”

According to FanGraphs alumnus Sung Min Kim, the Wyverns acquired the rights to Choo via a special 2007 draft of players who had been overseas for five years. Those rights can’t be traded, which prevented Choo from joining the Busan-based Lotte Giants, for whom his uncle Jeong-tae Park played second base from 1991 to 2004.

The Wyverns (those are two-legged dragons, if you need a refresher) have fallen upon hard times, finishing ninth in the 10-team league last year with a 51-92-1 record; only the Hanwha Eagles (46-95-3) were worse. That’s a rapid drop for a team that won the Korean Series in 2018 and finished the ’19 season in second place, with the same record (88-55-1) as the Doosan Bears but bumped down due to head-to-head records. They were swept by the Kiwoom Heroes in the Playoff round.

What’s more, the Wyverns are in the midst of an identity crisis. Based in Incheon, a city in northwestern South Korea, they were recently sold to Shinsegae Group, with their E-Mart subsidiary taking over the team’s management, and are due to be renamed and rebranded next month. As MyKBO’s Dan Kurtz explained recently, they’ll wear their Incheon uniforms until new ones are introduced on March 6. Based on trademark applications and domain registrations, all signs point to the team becoming the SSG Electros.

By any name, Choo’s new team could use whatever life remains in his bat, as the Wyverns ranked second-to-last in both scoring (4.40 runs per game, 0.76 below league average) and slugging percentage (.383, 26 points below average) in 2020; only two regulars posted a wRC+ of 100 or better. Whether this is the capstone of an impressive and somewhat underappreciated career, or the start of a substantial second act, here’s hoping Choo’s KBO run is an enjoyable one.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

I think this deserves a day of mourning. Not for Choo, of course, he’ll be fine. But because Incheon is leaving behind a dope as hell nickname like WYVERNS in favor of, I dunno, some corporate tie-in.

The Strangermember
1 year ago
Reply to  Myfanwy

The out-of-touch narcissism of replacing “Wyverns” with the weirdly 1950s-sounding “Electros” leads me to imagine that the team was purchased by the Korean Montgomery Burns. Choo had better shave those sideburns!

1 year ago
Reply to  Myfanwy

Wyverns fans have their fingers crossed.. please not the Electros.