The Joy of Ji-Man Choi
Over five postseason games, the Rays have had a plethora of heroes. Tommy Pham is batting .429/.455/.714, good for a scalding 213 wRC+. Willy Adames has been even better, with a 240 wRC+ and an actual cannon for an arm. Charlie Morton has thrown 10 innings and allowed only a single run. Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo have been lights out; the list goes on and on. Spare a thought, though, for Ji-Man Choi, who might not lead the team in batting but surely leads it in sheer delight.
If you want to understand how weird Choi’s contributions have been, a good place to start is the walk rate. He’s drawn six walks in 19 postseason plate appearances, good for a 31.6% walk rate. That’s second only to Giancarlo Stanton’s 36.4% among batters with 10 or more PA, and it’s the reason for his outrageous .154/.421/.385 batting line. When you see a slugging percentage lower than an on-base percentage, that usually means a batter has no power. Not so with Choi — he has a home run in the postseason and a solid .231 ISO. He just walks all the dang time.
But uh — a .154 batting average? Does he have a .000 BABIP or something? Not at all — it’s a reasonable .250. No, his batting average woes come down to a 42.1% strikeout rate, which is about as terrible as it sounds, even in the small sample theatre that is October baseball. It’s a strikeout world these days, but not that much of a strikeout world; the only players in the playoffs with a higher strikeout rate than Choi are A.J. Pollock (76.9%!), Miguel Sanó, Gavin Lux, and Brandon Lowe, and two of those guys have wRC+’s below zero.
In fact, Choi’s .250 BABIP is of the 1-for-4 variety, because 15 of his 19 plate appearances have ended in a strikeout, walk, or home run. That home run came in the Rays’ 10-3 pasting of Zack Greinke in Game 3, and it buoys Choi’s overall stats, so I might as well show it here:
But really, the fun of Choi isn’t in the home runs. Sure those are nice, great for the team, all that jazz. This particular home run increased Tampa Bay’s chances of winning by 8.2%, the second-most-important play of the game for them behind Kevin Kiermaier’s three-run homer. But forget the home run; just give me the home run celebration:
What’s great to me about Choi is his wonderful combination of giddiness and sheepishness, combined with the instinctual “Hey, I could do that!” feeling I get for an instant every time he does something good. That feeling is certainly misplaced; Choi might not look like a prototypical elite athlete, but looks can be deceiving. Check out his quick reflexes in Game 4, with bonus Josh Reddick anger:
Or marvel at this quick-twitch response in Game 2 to steal a hit:
It’s not just the reflexes, either: his 25.3 ft/sec average sprint speed this year, while below the major league average, is preposterously fast for a normal human being, and he provided above average baserunning value while stealing two bases during the regular season. He might look like a weekend warrior, but he’s emphatically not.
Still, you can’t watch him celebrate a win, shirt untucked and partially unbuttoned in stark contrast to his teammates, and not get a sense of “Hey that’s what I’d look like out there”:
Of course, that wouldn’t be fun if Choi weren’t good. Put a civilian on a major league field, rather than just someone our brains mistakenly think of as one, and it wouldn’t work. No one wants to see a reminder that major league athletes are nothing like us.
But Choi is good! His bizarre postseason line, walks and strikeouts and all, has worked out to a 133 wRC+. In the regular season, he had a 121 wRC+, good for 1.9 WAR in just 487 plate appearances. He has a tremendous batting eye, with one of the 20 lowest chase rates among batters with 450 or more plate appearances this year.
That home run off of Greinke? It was absolutely crushed, 108.3 mph off the bat, and it wasn’t even the hardest-hit ball of the playoffs for him. He hit two triples this year, too, albeit one that benefited from a defensive misplay. He’s strong, sneaky-strong, and quick, sneaky-quick, as much as our brains try to incorrectly comp him to lesser athletes. And yet — watch him slide into third on the aforementioned defensive misplay:
You don’t have to care about the aesthetics to think that Choi is good. The Trop would suggest that Rays aren’t in the business of caring about aesthetics, and they traded for Choi and made him an everyday starter on a 96-win team. He has good counting stats, good context-neutral stats, good Statcast stats — he’s just good!
But if you do care about how baseball looks, that’s an extra mark in Choi’s favor. He’s an absolute delight to watch, regardless of what he’s doing on the field. Would it be good for baseball if every player was Ji-Man Choi? Certainly not. It would be just as bad if every player had his postseason batting line, where 83.3% of his plate appearances have ended with a walk, strikeout, or home run. But it works in small doses, and there’s no better proof of that than Choi.