Saturday, November 20, 2004

A Punless Hee Seop Choi Post

Now that I’ve gone back to rambling on about Jason Kendall, perhaps it’s also time I pontificate about Hee Seop Choi. The decision by the Dodgers to hold Choi out of the lineup in September and October was extremely disappointing, especially since I was already irritated by Jim Tracy’s use of him that resulted in his being removed from a lot of games in the sixth or seventh inning. I felt very strongly at the time that Choi should have been starting whenever there was a northpaw on the mound and that the Dodgers’ lefty heavy lineup should be distributed so that there was not a solid wall of left-handed batters for opposing LOOGYs to feast on.

Choi is turning 26 in March, and he’s already been marginalized by three organizations. Perhaps fortunately, there’s a good chance that the third one, the Dodgers, will prominently feature Choi next season.

Choi’s performance in his time with the Dodgers was, quite simply, terrible: .161/.289/.242. However, the reasons for that are quite identifiable. First, Choi had pretty bad luck on balls hit in play. Although his line drive percentage was down in his time with the Dodgers, this isn’t enough to account for his .227 BABIP. Using his hit ball data and JC Bradbury’s BABIP formula, I found that a more reasonable batting average on balls in play would be .284, which is still below average but much more reasonable. Second, Choi’s quality of opposition was pretty high. According to Baseball Prospectus’ data, the average batter would have hit .245/.327/.394 against the pitchers Choi faced while with LA, a revelation which shouldn’t surprise people who read this way back when. If you adjust his raw data for quality of opponent, his line becomes .173/.291/.260, but if this adjustment is made in concert with a BABIP adjustment his line bumps up to .216/.324/.325, which isn’t something that you should let play first base but which isn’t nearly as bad as his raw data would indicate. The third reason is that Choi didn’t hit any home runs with the Dodgers. Combining the BABIP data with an adjustment to convert 3 of his doubles into home runs (if he’d hit them at the same rate he did with Florida, he’d have ~3.3), he hits .242/.355/.435 with the Dodgers, and if we tweak that slightly again for quality of opposition (but this time use his Florida quality of opposition for SLG, since that’s where hit the home runs), we’re looking at .260/.358/.451.

Some of you are no doubt shaking your heads, thinking that what I’ve done in the previous paragraph is useless rationalization in an attempt to make a player I like appear better than he is. That is, to some extent, a valid reading, as it probably does characterize a chunk of my motivation. But at the same time, the death of baseball analysis is the refusal to consider alternate functions of data. Choi didn’t hit any home runs with the Dodgers, and there could be a lot of reasons for that—maybe Choi isn’t/wasn’t comfortable with the hitter’s backdrop there, maybe suddenly pitchers had learned to exploit the pundits’ perceived whole in Choi’s swing, maybe Choi and Tim Wallach aren’t a good fit, maybe the pressure from his being a PNG to Lo Duca-crazed Dodgers fans and his usage patterns changed his approach. However, it’s pointless to assume that Choi has lost his ability to hit balls out of the park forever simply because he had a bad month, and it’s pointless to evaluate his performance outside of the context provided by an analysis of his luck on balls in play and the quality of the pitchers he faced. I am not arguing that Choi did hit .260/.358/.451 but simply had bad luck; I am arguing that Choi continued to display nearly all the same skills that he’d displayed in his career through July 30, 2004, and that the one skill he ceased to display (home runs) was probably a sufferer from small sample size rather than a sudden decrease in ability.

So what is Choi’s outlook for the future? To try to answer this question, I took a look at a comparison suggested by Larry Mahnken: Carlos Delgado. Both Delgado and Choi are tall, fairly slow left-handed batters who specialize in power and walks. Delgado’s numbers in his age 24 and 25 seasons were, in many ways similar to Choi’s, with the only substantial differences being that Delgado hit home runs about 1.4 times as often as Choi and drew BB/HBP about .75 times as often as Choi. Those figures are based on major league performance, and I compared them to minor league performance. In the minors, Choi and Delgado hit home runs and drew walks with almost identical frequency. I also have made a subjective evaluation that Choi cannot be expected to hit as many singles as Delgado, who at least at this point in his career is a better line drive hitter than Choi and whose high BABIP in 1996 was somewhat more indicative of his talent than his average BABIP in 1997. There might be better comparisons for Choi, although my own examination of his list of PECOTA comparables from last season (Delgado was 8th most comparable at that point) didn’t reveal anyone whose skill set and performance more closely resembled those of Choi, but I think this one is pretty valid. So what would Choi look like if he followed Delgado’s development curve from age 26 onward? I sketched a composite of this “Chelgado” by taking Delgado’s numbers for each season and changing the following variables: his walks/HBP per plate appearance is increased by a factor of 1.33, his plate appearance per home run rate is increased by a factor of 1.5, and his batting average on balls in play is decreased by a factor of 0.89 (if you’re super curious about how I decided upon those figures, email me). Chelgado ends up with a median gross production average of .293 (age 29), with a high of .347 at age 28 and a low of .273 at age 32. His mean GPA for this seven-year period is .300, and even if we throw out Delgado’s ridiculously good age 28 and age 31 seasons the mean is a healthy .287. If you prefer runs created per 27 outs, Chelgado averages 7.02 or 6.366 dropping just the two highest seasons.

What’s more is that Delgado has been an everyday player his entire career despite having substantial platoon splits. If Choi were to follow Delgado’s curve while not starting against southpaws, it’s fair to raise those raw rate stats quite a bit. I don’t have Delgado’s career splits, but I ran a Chelgado simulation with his lefty/righty data from 2002-2004 and the GPA split is .254 to .315. I’m not certain how good of an idea it is for Choi to be permanently platooned, but I don’t think I’m opposed to it. I think there are enough right-handed hitters who can mash lefties and play at Choi’s end of the defensive spectrum for that to be a worthwhile strategy. For the Dodgers, this should be a relatively easy task, as Olmedo Saenz did a solid job as Jason Giambi’s platoon-mate in Oakland and his 2004 performance certainly indicates that that can continue. Heck, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Chin-Feng Chen could deliver performance above league average if installed as a southpaw specialist, although I admit to having no knowledge about his minor league splits. Given that a decent right-handed bat that can play first base is pretty easy to come by if you’re looking hard enough, I don’t think Choi’s terrible performance against lefties in his young major league career presents a significant problem.

While it’s conceivable that Choi will develop into a bona fide superstar, I think expectations should be more tempered. He probably won’t ever hit home runs or even singles as often as Carlos Delgado has, but it’s unlikely that all the power he demonstrated in the minor leagues has simply evaporated and won’t return. Furthermore, his outstanding and consistent ability to draw walks is almost guaranteed to stick around. I would argue that it’s more likely Choi will develop into a superstar than that he will be a below average first baseman. All told, Choi is a solid choice to be one of the ten best first basemen in baseball in each of the next six seasons, and I think that’s exactly what he’ll be. Given how little money he'll be making over the next four seasons, that looks like a pretty valuable commodity.

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