Don’t be the least bit surprised, and maybe only mildly alarmed, if left fielder Shin-Soo Choo is at times lifted from Texas Rangers games in the later innings the next few weeks.
The left ankle he sprained April 21 is only at 80 percent of full strength, he estimated, and manager Ron Washington might opt to go to a player with two healthy ankles to patrol left field if there is a lead to protect.
Washington would also be protecting Choo, who rates as a one-of-a-kind player in franchise history. The Rangers have had good leadoff hitters in the past, but Choo takes batting first to a level the Rangers have never had.
It’s news when he doesn’t reach base. He’s an on-base machine in the spot that requires a player who can get on in any imaginable way.
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But Choo has a simple explanation for his magical formula that accounts for all the walks and hit by pitches he had piled up entering Saturday’s late game, which he started with a walk.
“I just swing at strikes. That’s all,” Choo said. “I had a lot of walks last year and have some this year, but I’m not trying to walk. I’m just swinging at good pitches.”
There’s more to it than just swinging at strikes. Choo has never not been patient, at least based on his year-to-year on-base percentages. He has a .391 career mark and a .446 on-base percentage this year that was second in the American League and tied for third in the majors.
He said that he has spent years learning pitchers, as well as umpires’ tendencies, to acquire his current sense of the strike zone.
“Umpires stay around a long time,” Choo said.
Entering Saturday, he had seen 4.32 pitches per plate appearance, eighth in the AL, collected 26 hits, drawn 16 walks and been hit three times. But he wasn’t a patient hitter Friday night, swinging early in the count against Los Angeles Angels starter Hector Santiago.
Choo knew that Santiago liked to throw strikes, and Choo didn’t want to fall behind in the count. So, he swung at the first pitch of the sixth inning and hit it for a home run that jump-started the Rangers’ comeback from a 2-0 hole into a 5-2 victory.
“He takes a lot of walks, but he’s an aggressive hitter and knows which guys he can attack,” said shortstop Elvis Andrus, who bats second in the lineup. “He looks like he has a plan for every single at-bat. That’s one of the hardest things.
“It’s like he says, ‘I want to have an eight-pitch at-bat.’ And he does it. He’s in charge every time he’s up there.”
The Rangers haven’t been starved in their history for leadoff hitters, though most were flashes in the pan, like Tom Goodwin, Darryl Hamilton and Eric Young. Bump Wills stole bases, but didn’t have an outrageous on-base percentage. Mike Hargrove, Mark McLemore, Rusty Greer and Toby Harrah showed well, but didn’t bat first consistently.
The exception was Ian Kinsler, who was traded in November as the club’s all-time leader in leadoff homers and stolen bases.
Kinsler led the Rangers four times in walks from atop the lineup, but twice with only 59 and 60 free passes. Choo took 112 walks and was plunked 26 times last season in Cincinnati as he posted a career-best .423 OBP.
“I think he’s out of the old-school format,” Washington said. “A lot of your leadoff hitters today are guys who have speed but don’t have the on-base percentage. But he’s a little bit of everything.
“He has great discipline. He knows what he likes to hit. He has a good approach. There’s a few of them around, but there’s not many of them.”
And all he does, he said, is swing at strikes.
“If you give yourself more chances to hit a strike, the better chance you’re going to have,” Choo said. “Not many hitters swing at balls and get hits regularly. I just try to swing at strikes.”