Choo ready for challenge with Rangers
After signing big deal in December, outfielder confident he can be catalyst for Texas
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo will be the second player from South Korea to ever play for the Rangers.
Most Rangers fans remember the first player. They also likely remember that pitcher Chan Ho Park's four years in Texas were not what the Rangers expected. Not even close. It was a tough time for both Park and the Rangers.
But Choo still sought Park's counsel before and after he signed his seven-year, $130 million contract with the Rangers in December.
"He told me he wanted to play good here, but he was hurt," Choo said. "Everybody wants to play good, but you're hurt, you can't do anything. It's just a hard time. So after I signed with Texas, he said, 'Choo, please play better here.' He said, 'Choo, please play well, but I enjoyed the Texas Rangers.'"
Choo and Park, who signed a five-year, $65 million contract in 2001 with the Rangers, play different positions, but their situations are similar beyond being from the same country. The Rangers spent big money because they wanted Park to fill the specific need of being their No. 1 starter. That didn't quite work out so well, and now they have signed Choo to be the No. 1 hitter in their lineup.
The Rangers weren't happy with an offense that scored 78 fewer runs last season than the year before, and they needed a leadoff hitter after trading Ian Kinsler to the Tigers for power-hitting first baseman Prince Fielder. The Rangers expect Choo to take over as the leadoff hitter and be a big reason why their offense will be better this season.
"I'm human, so I probably put a little bit of pressure on myself," Choo said Friday. "People will maybe think about better numbers, but as I said earlier, if you try too much, you hurt yourself by over-swinging and over-playing. So I think it will be a challenge for me the next seven years, starting this year. But I like challenges. I talk to myself: 'Choo, you play Shin-Soo Choo style.' So it's my goal to be healthy and play every day, and that's how good things happen."
There is much to like about Choo, a left-handed hitter who can play all three outfield positions. His .389 career on-base percentage is sixth best among active players with 2,000 plate appearances, he has hit at least 20 home runs in three of the last five seasons and he has stolen at least 20 bases in four of the last five.
Choo is also 31, he has been on the disabled list three times in the past four years and he plays a physically demanding position. As Carl Crawford, Vernon Wells, Matt Kemp, Jayson Werth and others have shown, big contracts for outfielders come with inherent risk. Right now, Choo's annual average salary of $18,571,429 is the eighth highest ever for an outfielder, and it has seven years to run.
"I have confidence," Choo said. "Texas trusted me and gave me a seven-year deal. I'll pay back, take care of my body and keep it in good shape where I'll be able to play every day. A lot of people ask me, 'Choo, you have a good contract, how do you feel?'
"But I feel the same. I'm the same person, I do the same routine every day, same approach. I just [play my game] and keep my same approach and good things will happen."
Choo has also struggled against left-handed pitching the past two years with a .207 batting average, a .332 on-base percentage and a .276 slugging percentage against southpaws. In 2008-11, he hit a combined .271 with a .349 on-base percentage and a .393 slugging percentage against lefties.
"The last two years I have had a tough time against left-handed pitchers. I was just not really good, but still I can hit," Choo said. "I'm not worried about it, just things change a little bit and I'll be fine."
He showed the ability to make adjustments last season in his ability to handle two-strike and full-count situations. Choo went into the season with a career .181 average and .280 on-base percentage with two strikes. He was also a .212 hitter with a .486 on-base percentage with the count full.
Choo emphasized being better in both situations last year, especially trying to lay off bad pitches outside the zone. The result was raising his two-strike average to .206 with a .348 on-base percentage and his full-count average to .279 with a .581 on-base percentage. He saw 4.23 pitches per plate appearance, eighth best in the Majors.
"Last year, I was in leadoff spot the whole year, so I want to do something, change my two-strike approach, and it worked very well," Choo said. "Yeah, I don't try to see a lot of pitches, but I could say last year, I had a way better approach after two strikes. That's why I saw a lot of pitches."
The Rangers need for that to continue this season.
"What has always impressed me about Choo is the way he goes about his business," manager Ron Washington said. "The guy has a passion for his craft. I'm going to write his name in there as leadoff hitter. I'm going to sink or swim with him in the leadoff spot, it doesn't matter if it's against left-handers, right-handers or three-armed guys."
That's all Washington can do after the Rangers made such a sizable commitment to a productive player playing a demanding position.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.