On Shin-Soo Choo's Leadoff Prowess and The Sheer Dominance of Yu Darvish's Nasty Slider.
Baseball has somehow cornered the market on sports preseason optimism — or, well, at least it has in this sprawling Texas domain, and I'm not really that familiar with any others, to be perfectly honest.
But, let's face it, unlike the other widely televised children's games that we obsess about, baseball fans just find a way to metabolize whatever offseason injustice has been dispatched unto them in a given year. That's why it wasn't even remotely remarkable that the very instant when Josh Hamilton signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last offseason, Rangers fans were already rationalizing the idea that he wasn't that good to begin with.
We don't even need him, we said. He's a quitter. How long will his crack cocaine-riddled bones hold up anyway?
And, just like that, as if it had been fed down to us by the marketing arm of the organization, Josh Hamilton was gone and our key offseason addition was manifested in the form of a man guaranteed to have zero home runs and zero runs batted in: new hitting coach Dave Magadan.
For what our lineup would lack in pure thump, it would easily make up in patience and selective hitting thanks to the baseball warlock that is Dave Magadan. Because that's how baseball fandom works.
Except that whole thing didn't happen. The team that had led major league baseball in runs scored in 2012 watched 78 runs evaporate from the score sheet. And their fourth best on-base percentage? It slipped to 10th in the league. The damning thing about the lineup was that the same team that built wins with scoring early (102 first-inning runs in '12) produced about half as many (55) first-inning runs in 2013. The Rangers managed to score in the first inning in in only 38 of the 162 games they played last season. It's kind of scary to imagine what the Rangers record would have been if the pitching staff didn't allow its fewest number of runs (636) since 1983.
The question that remains here is if Dave Magadan was just a fabrication of Fenway Park, the home ballpark of his previous employer. Well, this is the year we find out.
This offseason has been kind to the Rangers offense. Santa Jesus brought them the most consistent thumper this side of Albert Pujols in the form of Prince Fielder, plus an on-base superhero in the person of Shin-Soo Choo. The only major league players that finished with a better on-base percentage than Choo in 2013 wound up in the top six of their respective leagues' MVP races. A quick glance over Choo's peripherals will lead you to the assumption that last season was something of an aberration for the South Korean outfielder, though. His on-base percentage spiked comfortably over .400 for the first time in his career (.423) while he fronted the best batting order he'd ever played with and cranked that walk total up by 40 more than he ever had before. It only helps the sarcastic eye when you realize that he led the majors in getting hit by pitches (26), a total that eclipsed his previous high watermark by 9 whole HBPs.
Gravity wins, folks. In baseball (or maybe just in science) it's called “regression to the mean.” The natural expectation here would be for Shin-Soo Choo to return to the valley of on-base production that has been the norm for his career — still an incredibly impressive number at an average of .389, granted. There is an argument to be made, however, for his new surroundings keeping Choo's production up. And I'll attempt to make it in the next paragraph, so keep reading, thanks.
Choo has former Indians manager Manny Acta to thank for his $130 million contract. Prior to the 2012 season, the idea of Shin-Soo Choo as a leadoff hitter was abstract thought. In fact, it had only been tried in 7 at-bats prior to the start of the 2012 season. Since that time, it's been tried 934 times and the results are just nonsense. Here's some numbers to back that up, so just switch to number-deciphering mode real quick: As a leadoff hitter, Choo is a .300 hitter (.253 is the league average) with an on base percentage of .413 (.318 is the league average) and a .484 slugging percentage (.396 is the league average). The point is, Choo hasn't been doing this gig that long, and he's still figuring it out. And he's only being doing it for a good lineup for one season — something that drew some MVP votes his way and enough money to build his own Jurassic Park-style island. The obvious question here: What could he do with an even better lineup and yet another year of leadoff experience?
Good things, you'd think. Or hope.
Speaking of good things: You know how sometimes you don't know what you're looking at while it's happening? In 2013, Yu Darvish tied for second in something that's not an official category in baseball. That would be “tough losses” or losses in quality starts. Six of Darvish's nine losses were labeled as “tough losses,” and it felt like all nine were probably tough by the Merriam-Webster definition.
Darvish led the league in a completely different category that's infinitely more fun, though. That would be strikeouts.
The 277 punch-outs that Yu chalked up in the '13 were 37 more than the next best pitcher in baseball. He was the outlier.
But when you inspect the mysticism that accompanies flirting with 300 strikeouts, you'll find one enigma that strikes fear into hitters worse than that weird stuff on Kenny Rogers' cap: Yu Darvish's slider. This is a pitch that keeps in its back pocket a wallet that reads “BAD MOTHERFUCKER” across it. If we just tallied the total strikeouts earned with his yakker (an old person called a slider that once, I think), he'd still have the 30th most strikeouts in baseball (178). That's more than C.C. Sabathia, R.A. Dickey, Jon Lester and 19-game winner Jordan Zimmerman had in their entire 2013 seasons each.
For another point of reference: The next-best pitch in baseball is A.J. Burnett's knuckle-curve, which racked up 134 strikeouts of its own last season.
Here's the rub, though: Last season, Yu switched the recipe on how he was striking people by featuring his slider 200 percent more times than he did in 2012. He laid off the fastball, which batters had started to catch up to, and started varying the speed of his slider (72-88 mph), thus giving it multiple different angles from which to fool opposing batters. The results were incredible. The league hit all of .145 against his slide piece, notching just 15 extra base hits on 1,290 pitches.
That's called helplessness, folks. Even when you know it's coming, you can't do a thing about it. It's the coolest thing you'll see at the ballpark this season, aside from an Adrian Beltre one-knee walk-off grand slam maybe.
My point is that it's the deadliest pitch in baseball. And we get to watch it every fifth day. Which is great.
Presuming, of course, that I'm not just being overly preseason optimistic.
Cover photo via the Texas Rangers' Twitter feed.