An Unorthodox Opening Act – Replacing Shin-Soo Choo

Lucroy

That crack we heard in the bottom of the 5th Monday night wasn’t the bat. It wasn’tthe forearm of Shin-Soo Choo either, as much as our minds made us think it was.

Shin-Soo Choo

It was the Rangers batting order, breaking in two. As Choo fell, so fell the two halves of the Rangers lineup. On one-half lay a heart of the order as fearsome as any in baseball. On the other tumbled a bottom of the order as productive as this team has seen in many years. In between – the tiny piece around which it all pivoted – was the professional, disciplined, and leadoff-powerful bat of Shin-Soo Choo.

How Jeff Banister picks up the two halves – and who he chooses to hold them together – could be the key to October. As Evan Grant writes in the Dallas Morning News, there is no replicating Shin-Soo Choo.

There are obvious candidates – Rougned Odor, Jurickson Profar, Delino Deshields, or Elvis Andrus. I see each of them as iffy candidates, at best.

In my mind, Profar of today is still growing into the potential Profar, and leading off in a pennant race is not the place for a decidedly one-sided switch-hitter in a slump. He’s struggled all year as a righty, and even though his lefty approach looks as good as ever, the results aren’t playing out in his first full season back from two years downtime for a bum shoulder.

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Don’t rule out the fatigue factor of an Arlington August, even for an athlete in his prime. No conditioning after two shoulder surgeries readies you for a full MLB season out of the chute.

If that right shoulder is fatigued, it would explain a lot about his hot zones. Have a look at his pre- and post-All-Star hot zones, from each side of the plate:

Pre-All-Star Break (ASB), as a lefty:

Pre-ASB-Lefty Profar

Post-ASB, as a lefty:

Post-ASB-Lefty Profar

As a lefty, your right arm is your bottom hand hitting. As it fatigues, it’s increasingly hard to take a smooth, strong path inside the ball, or turn hard on an inside pitch with power – let alone drive anything low and away with authority. The hitter flip balls to the opposite field, or even rips top hand pull shots as they open up, rather than driving them with legs under a strong hitting “V”.

As that side gets weak, a hitter’s ability to hit anything that isn’t away almost disappears, because rotating can cause the shoulder to scream. And anything away, you can get long and reach with the top hand. Power goes with it, even away, as the hips fly open too soon. This leaves a hitter one hot spot – up and away. This is where a tired bottom hand can ride shotgun as the top hand does all the work.

It wouldn’t shock me if part of Jurickson’s problem was just that. Part of it is the normal doldrums of a slump, and the fact that most hitters stay hot up and away, but the utter change in hot vs cold for Odor from his best side is striking. So what about his weaker (and less prevalent side) – hitting righty?

Pre-ASB as a righty:

Pre-ASB Righty Profar

Post-ASB as a Righty:

Post-ASB-Righty Profar

Ah-HA. The smoking gun. No, I’m kidding. Seriously, there’s no smoking gun here.

Pre-ASB, he was actually just able to range a bit better to “pitchers” pitches, up and in and down and away, but he still had huge holes in his swing, particularly down and in. I suspect that’s just a symptom of being less “polished” as a righty hitter. He sees fewer pitches, and I don’t know this for a fact, but I’d bet he is a more natural left-handed hitter, just from watching him at the plate. The right side looks manufactured, if either side does.

Post-ASB, I see a hitter who is actually doing a bit more of what he should do – kill pitches middle-up, in all zones. He’s also missing pitcher’s pitches to the four corners, with special trouble low.

Then again, I hope this works out like my call to bench Mitch Moreland. “Jurks is tired and can’t get on top of righties inside anymore.”– then he starts to rake at about a .400 clip. Go reverse-curse of SDI!

But still – youth, plus all of that streakiness, plus a fatigue factor, makes him less than ideal as a leadoff man.

Rougned Odor is the window-dressing candidate – speed and power are fun to watch, but the flash with which it still comes and goes for Rougie is a bit too flashy for leadoff.

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It’s that swing-from-the-heels, run with abandon style that suits him so well further down in the lineup. We don’t need disciplined at bats from Rougie. They aren’t his style – he walks roughly 2.3% of at-bats or one for every nine strikeouts he has.

He needs to be able to key on a fastball and kill it. Leadoff is a spot for many types of hitters. Rougie’s not my choice for one of them, as exciting as it is when he’s zeroed in. The cost-benefit gets too high when you’re finding the key for the tenor of the lineup. His place is low-order thunder. It suits him for now.

I’m not going to get all analytical on Rougie. All the analysis of him you need is if he puts his head down after hitting a fly ball, bet on it going out. If he looks up or flips the bat away, it’s probably warning track. He’s been putting his head down a lot lately. Keep the head down, Rougie. And keep your spot at the core of the second “heart of the order”. You fit amazingly well there.

Elvis Andrus takes no analysis for me at all. Evan Grant says it all with one line in his piece. Of the 2010 World Series team’s leadoff hitter, Evan calls on his wisdom of the room:

“After a month-long experiment back in the leadoff spot in 2013, he acknowledged feeling a bit of tentativeness there and hasn’t had an at-bat at leadoff since.”

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All I need to know is that a guy as vital as Elvis has felt the least bit tentative at leadoff, and he’s out. You set the table there. You need to sweat confidence. When he’s there, he just sweats. Deal us out on that one.

Which brings us to Delino Deshields. He had a breakout year hitting leadoff last year. Then came 2016 and a demotion. Simply put, he hasn’t put in enough big league time this year to show he’s even ready for prime time, let alone the spotlight as a curtain.

Rather than batting average or OBP (both of which are, obviously, way down from 2015), here are Delino’s plate discipline stats, with a glossary for those of you (like me) who had to look some of these up (all data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Info Solutions):

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone% F-Strike%
2015 19.7 % 55.2 % 56.9 % 85.7 % 50.3 % 62.4 %
2016 24.4 % 56.4 % 47.6 % 83.2 % 47.1 % 61.0 %
  • Season – The season in which we are measuring said statistic (sorry, had to see if you were still reading.)
  • O-Swing%—Percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone
  • Z-Swing%-Percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone
  • O-Contact%-Percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown outside the strike zone
  • Z-Contact%-Percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when swinging at pitches thrown inside the strike zone
  • Zone%-Percentage of pitches seen inside the strike zone
  • F-Strike% – First pitch strike percentage

What this tells us is that, in a nutshell, Delino is swinging at more pitches outsid041615-MLB-rangers-deshields-jr-hits-ahn-PI.vresize.1200.675.high.9e the zone than he did last year, while only increasing his percentage inside the zone by a little bit. He’s making much less contact inside the zone. Just as troublingly, he’s only making a bit less contact outside the zone. Those are the pitches you generally want to miss or foul off. His higher strikeout percentage indicates not enough of those are fouls. He’s seeing almost 8% fewer strikes overall, and taking just a few fewer first pitch strikes. All his numbers are trending down, especially among those you want going up for a leadoff man.

 

Ah, but that’s all from before he was sent down, you say?

Possibly, but his heat zone doesn’t suggest it. Check out the gaping hole here; this is from his July call up to now:

post-callup Deshields

Pitchers who can keep the ball away have no trouble. You can’t have a leadoff man who gives up half the plate. We had one of those in my Rangers watching youth. His name was David Hulse. I still have his Mother’s Cookies card somewhere.

But a leadoff man extraordinaire he was not.

So that’s like, four pages of what won’t work. What will? I have a radical idea: hit the catcher leadoff.

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First, let’s get past the speed factor. Shin-Soo Choo isn’t a leadoff hitter because he has speed. He’s a leadoff hitter because he takes tough at-bats and makes them tougher. He makes pitchers work, and has enough power to hurt them when they’re lazy. Besides, as you’ll see, Jonathon Lucroy doesn’t give up anything to Choo in baserunning prowess.

In looking at the numbers, only two hitters seem to work pitchers to the level Choo does. Adrian Beltre who is so ensconced in the heart of the order than I fear the chemistry impact a move would make, not to mention the RBI it would rob him of. The other hitter is Lucroy.

Here are the on-base stats for Choo and Lucroy, this year, stacked against each other:

  BB% BB/K OBP OPS Spd BABIP UBR
Choo 12.6 % 0.57 .369 .784 4.1 .296 0.3
Lucroy 9.0 % 0.48 .356 .864 5.0 .325 0.7

With Lucroy, you’re adding a guy who walks a considerable 3% less – but better than Profar or Andrus (by 4%), and particularly better than Odor by 10%. You’re also going to get a guy who’s walk to strikeout rate is 10% worse. That again is better by 38% than Odor, about 10% worse than the uncomfortable Andrus, and 8% better than Profar. His OBP is negated by the greater power numbers but we’ll get to that. While he’s bound to fall off a bit – both in terms of homers since coming to Texas, and overall batting average, given a .325 baBIP – you’ll see his speed rating and Ultimate Baserunning Rating are both actually better than the banged up Choo.

If I told you he played left field, and not catcher, we’d have almost no debate. Except for the power.

Ah, yes. The power.

Why, you say, put that much pop at the top of the order? Well, first, because Lucroy is not traditionally a home run power hitter. His power for his career has been in doubles – at nearly a 2:1 ratio, including 53 in 2014 in Milwaukee. His homer streak in Texas MIGHT last, but it probably won’t, and certainly not at so far above his career rate.

Rather, that career-trend gap to gap power sets the table great for clutch players like the slumping Ian Desmond, Carlos Beltran, Beltre, and a resurgent Moreland. Beyond that, hitting Profar and Andrus lower in the order – closer to their comfort zones – means that after the first inning (the only inning Lucroy is guaranteed to lead off) you get him more at-bats with them as men to drive in.

You’ve essentially put a power hitter at the 1, 4 (Beltran), 5 (Beltre), 6 (Odor), and (7) Nomar Mazara slots, with more than a little pop from Profar at 8 – meaning pitchers never get a break for when lightning might strike. And on the days when Lucroy doesn’t catch – at least once or twice a week – you give Profar or Deshields a shot to play “prove it to me” in the leadoff spot without much pressure. You also give yourself versatility heading into the push for the division and into the playoffs.

Hopefully, by then, Shin-Soo Choo is back and you’ve simply given yourself another creative leadoff option against tough lefties. But until then, I say let the man who calls the game have a shot at firing the first shot as well.

I mean, they called Tony LaRussa “unorthodox” all the way to three rings and the Hall of Fame. Frankly, the only other guy I can think of who’d try it these days would be Joe Maddon. Anybody know how his Cubbies are doing?

Oftentimes, the line between the norm and genius is a little application of logic in an unusual place. Jeff Banister may not qualify as a genius yet. But a year and a half of inspired baseball has bought him the bandwidth to try something new.

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So give the new guy a leadoff shot.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington.
He pitched - typically backing up third after doing so - and eventually settled into catching in leagues throughout Richardson and Plano in his youth, graduating from and lettering in baseball at Richardson Berkner High School in 1998. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner and buys bits by the megabyte. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

2 comments

  • Chills! To believe you worked 75 hours last week for a paycheck, and brought chills from your heart to write this article! What a great read⚾️! Amazing how your words and mind work together for the love of the game !

  • Chris this is fantastic stuff. Really enjoyed the read.

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