Admit it. You thought he was a bust.
You looked aghast at his .096 batting average last April 30, you pondered Shin-Soo Choo’s seven-year, $130-million free agent contract, and you wondered what on earth were the Texas Rangers thinking?
And by the middle of July, Choo had shown you.
He doesn’t know why his Aprils never seem to equal his Augusts. He can’t find the words to explain how a veteran outfielder can work so hard in the off-season, and yet come up so empty when the curtain rises on the regular season.
“In the 2009 season, I think, I had a good start,” Choo said Thursday before the Rangers hit the practice field.
“Over my career, I think I’ve had only one great start. I don’t know why.”
Choo’s memory, regrettably for him, is correct. In the 2010 season, he started by hitting 2 for 18. In 2011, he was still batting only .221 on May 12. One year later, Choo was batting .220 as late as May 7.
In the Korean folk tale about the rise of the capital city of Seoul, the legendary Phoenix rises from the ashes of a war-torn land. Choo’s comeback from his injury-plagued first season in Texas and his .096 start in 2015 made his entire country proud.
The Korean Babe Ruth?
Hard to argue. There is a short list of candidates, admittedly, but Choo’s major league career has now well surpassed Hank Conger’s, Chan Ho Park’s and Hee-Seop Choi’s.
It took awhile for Rangers fans to embrace Choo, but he silenced the doubters and the Jon Daniels-bashers with last season’s second half.
Following the All-Star break, Choo put together a slash line of .343/.455/.560/1.016. After batting.400 and posting a .515 on-base percentage in September, when the Rangers overtook the Astros to win the AL West, Choo was named the American League’s Player of the Month.
“The man was as good as anybody in the game last year in the second half,” Rangers manager Jeff Banister observed accurately. “Not just offensively, but defensively too.”
A large part of his season, if not his entire story, has been Choo’s remarkable discipline at the plate. Even with the slow start, he walked 76 times and finished with a.375 on-base percentage, sixth-best in the league.
More than that, Choo’s signing — two days after Christmas, 2013 — was meant to be a stimulus to a more patient hitting approach by the entire club. The transformation is ongoing, but Banister now has a lineup dotted with grinders — a proper chemistry in baseball’s alleged post-steroids days.
When Choo finally came alive in a Texas uniform, he did it the only way he ever knew how — pitch by pitch, at-bat by at-bat.
“In the second half last year, I started thinking about the small things,” Choo said. “You want to hit. But you want to make sure you swing at strikes.”
You thought he was a bust, though, didn’t you? Critics of the Choo signing said he wasn’t worth a $130 million contract.
But who, besides Mike Trout, really is?
Banister is right. The case can be made that no American League player was better than Choo after the All-Star break last season.
When he returned to South Korea last season, he returned proudly. He and his wife, Won Mi Ha, presented a check for $100,000 on behalf of a foundation that helps build youth sports facilities in Korea. The Choos made another $100,000 donation to the Korean Cultural Center in Dallas.
As he ponders the start of the upcoming season, Choo knows his career historical trend is not on his side. He’s been a slow starter, and the Rangers’ 8-16 April almost buried them.
But Choo’s a Phoenix, not a free agent bust. Sometimes, you just have to be patient.