So What About Shin-Soo Choo’s Platoon Split?

And now I will present to you some known facts about Shin-Soo Choo. Most recently, Choo became a member of the Texas Rangers, for $130 million and seven guaranteed years. It’s a big investment for a team that was looking to make a big investment, and now the Rangers are probably the favorites to win the American League West. They’d long been linked to Choo, they’d long had a need, and Choo’s probably a better investment than Nelson Cruz would’ve been. He’s a splash, big enough to take the Rangers out of the potential running for Masahiro Tanaka.

Choo draws a ton of walks. He’s got a career OBP of .389, and he can run and slug, too. At .350, he owns one of the highest career BABIPs in the history of baseball. Since 1950, 797 players have batted at least 3,000 times through age 30. Choo’s BABIP is tied for seventh among them, equal to Kenny Lofton and a point above Joe Mauer. When facing right-handed pitchers, Choo’s had an awful lot in common with former teammate Joey Votto. When facing left-handed pitchers, he’s been much much worse. Choo’s got a big platoon split. He really is a sort of higher-profile Andre Ethier.

This has commanded plenty of attention, as you’d expect. Choo, in a way, is a player of extremes. He puts up an extremely high OBP. He puts up an extremely high BABIP. He hits extremely well against righties. The numbers say he performs extremely poorly in the field, and when facing lefties his numbers are worse to an extreme degree. Of course even a career is a small sample size and Choo’s own personal splits need to be regressed to some extent, but he’s developed the reputation of a guy who hits righties and can’t hit lefties. The plain and simple numbers:

vs. RHP: 154 wRC+
vs. LHP: 92 wRC+

Against righties, everything’s there. Against lefties, the power disappears. Critics like to refer to Choo as a glorified platoon player, even at his age. The splits themselves are undeniable. The question is: so what do they matter?

Intuitively, it feels like this should be exploitable. If Choo is one of the best hitters on a team, and if he struggles against lefties, you just make sure that he faces lefties in the later innings. That’s why bullpens tend to have two or three of them. Then Choo can be exploited in a way that a guy with an even split can’t. You’d expect this to show up somewhere in the clutch numbers, where an exploitable platoon guy might have trouble when it counts.

Well, as it happens, Choo has a slightly positive career Clutch score. He’s posted a 143 wRC+ in high-leverage situations, and a 135 wRC+ overall. The league, on average, is a few points worse in high-leverage situations, so right there that tells you that Choo hasn’t suffered. But we can go even deeper.

FanGraphs offers splits going back to 2002. I set minimums of 1,500 overall plate appearances, and 750 plate appearances against both lefties and righties. I wanted to compare guys with big platoon splits to guys with pretty even platoon splits. I identified 33 players with a wRC+ difference of at least 40 points. I identified 79 players with a wRC+ difference of no more than 10 points. Choo wound up in a group with guys like Ethier and Ryan Howard and Curtis Granderson.

The platoon group averaged a Clutch score of -0.3. The even group averaged a Clutch score of -0.1. This is over several seasons for each player. The platoon group averaged a 109 wRC+ in high-leverage situations, and a 116 wRC+ overall. The even group averaged a 98 wRC+ in high-leverage situations, and a 103 wRC+ overall. If there is a difference here, it’s very small. What seems like it ought to be exploitable hasn’t been successfully exploited.

So what’s going on? Let’s examine some left-handed batters from the platoon group. Here are the ten lefties from the group with the worst numbers against same-handed pitchers:

On average, overall, those players faced southpaws 28% of the time. On average, in high-leverage situations, those players faced southpaws 30% of the time. There’s hardly any increase. For Choo in particular, he’s faced 31% lefties overall, and 31% lefties in high-leverage situations. It’s readily evident right there that these splits aren’t being exploited. The key to taking advantage is to get lefties on the mound, and that just hasn’t happened much more than usual.

Why is that? I suspect there are a few reasons. For one, high-leverage situations are distributed all over, and sometimes you can even get them in the early or middle innings, when a starter’s still on the mound. If you get such a situation in extra innings, an opposing manager might be less likely to go to a specialist if he senses the game could go for a while. Pitching staffs have more righties than lefties, so there are limited opportunities. And we have to look at the ninth inning. The ninth is when the closer pitches, and closers handle plenty of high-leverage plate appearances. Since 2002, of the top 75 save-picker-uppers, 70 have been right-handed. Only Aroldis Chapman, Eddie Guardado, B.J. Ryan, Brian Fuentes, and Billy Wagner have been lefties. Right-handed closers are the norm, and though they’re closers in part because they don’t have big platoon splits, managers don’t like to remove closers to take advantage of a platoon hitter. That is, a right-handed closer won’t be removed with Choo coming to the plate, even though that would likely be best by probability. Suboptimal reliever usage means platoon lefties can still get desired high-leverage opportunities against righties in the ninth.

From the looks of things, there’s not much reason to worry. Perhaps Choo’s struggles against lefties suggest he’ll decline sooner than average, but that’s just a shot in the dark. Teams haven’t really exploited these players before. If you wish Choo were the same but more balanced, he’d be better against lefties but worse against righties, so that would even out. If you wish Choo were better against lefties, you’d just be wishing he were better, and everyone wants every player on their team to be better. Choo is what he is, and he’s good, and he happens to just pile up his biggest offensive contributions when there are righties on the mound. Righties throw a lot more innings than lefties do.

There will be times that Choo will be stuck facing a tough lefty in the seventh or eighth inning. In those situations Choo will be at a disadvantage, just trying to walk or hit a single. But he’ll also have plenty of opportunities against righties, and if you took ten hits against righties and turned them into ten hits against lefties, you’d still have the same number of hits. To focus just on what Choo struggles to do is to ignore what he does exceptionally well the rest of the time.

What’s the future hold? There aren’t a lot of comparisons for mid-power, high-BABIP types. Bobby Abreu’s an appealing choice. Guys like Derek Jeter, Rusty Greer, Jeff Cirillo, Bernie Williams, and Michael Young also fit. On average, they posted a .342 BABIP and a 124 wRC+ through 30, and a .320 BABIP and a 109 wRC+ between 31 and 37. There’s evidence that a high early-career BABIP doesn’t regress all the way to the mean, and Choo has gotten to this point because he plainly and simply hits the ball hard on a line consistently. He’s a line-drive hitter who walks, and those should age gracefully. We don’t know so much about his strikeouts, power, and defense, and it does certainly seem like Choo is a bit of an overpay at this point in his career. He’s not actually Joey Votto at the plate, and he’s already a fringe regular defender. For now, though, Choo’s going to help the Rangers score a lot more runs, and for every big plate appearance he gets against a lefty, there’ll be two or three he gets against righties. He’s really very good, against righties.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

Man, I remember when a tenet of sabermetrics was not to focus on what a player can’t do, but on what he can do. This a refreshing reminder of what I always thought was a very sensible position. And you stated it about as perfectly as you could here:

If you wish Choo were the same but more balanced, he’d be better against lefties but worse against righties, so that would even out. If you wish Choo were better against lefties, you’d just be wishing he were better, and everyone wants every player on their team to be better.

Plus the reminder that most closers are RHP is a nice counter as far as the “the opponent will just throw a LOOGY in clutch situations argument” and it’s backed up with numbers I haven’t seen before, to boot.

And that’s not even getting to the point that managers are going to have to choose whether to throw their best LOOGY against Choo or Fielder, or let a lefty face a RHB (assuming Choo and Fielder are split in the batting order… I’m really wondering what the Rangers will decide for their lineup).

10 years ago
Reply to  ralph

Mitch Moreland is another lefty hitter to throw in that soup . . . he’s better vs R as well. 3 straight years with a wRC+ clearly better vs righties.

10 years ago
Reply to  ralph

You put a RHB between Fielder and Choo and make opponents use 3 relievers going L-R-L if they want same-handed matchups.

Dont bat Fielder and Choo next to each other so one loogy can face both.

10 years ago
Reply to  CircleChange11

Ron Washington plans to bat Fielder 5th and Choo 6th.

Dave P
10 years ago
Reply to  dave

Good God, what an idiot

Aggie E
10 years ago
Reply to  dave

He never said that was his plan. Stop making bullshit up…

10 years ago
Reply to  CircleChange11

It sure seems like other teams exploit these splits against the Red Sox, even with the lefties split in the lineup. You bring in a LOOGY to face the first lefty, pitch around the RHH, and end the inning against the second lefty.