Choo finally gives Reds good leadoff hitter

Shin-Soo Choo hasn't been just one of the best leadoff hitters, he's been one of the best hitters. G Fiume/Getty Images

ST. LOUIS -- The baseball season is a process. A systematic series of countless decisions and actions building on each other every day for 162 games directed at one end: the postseason.

So, when on May 6 we see Shin-Soo Choo ranking second in the National League to teammate Joey Votto in on-base percentage (.463 to .464), leading in offensive WAR (2.0) and batting .331, a fair question to ask is: Will the Cincinnati Reds center fielder keep up this production?

"He's only going to get, I think, better once he knows the league," manager Dusty Baker said last week. "Right now he's going on video and word of mouth from people until he forms his own book, so to speak."

Since Baker became the Reds' manager they've struggled to get consistent production from the leadoff spot. That's six seasons. Last year, they won their second division title in three years even though they had the worst leadoff production in the majors -- an abysmal .254 OBP.

"The hardest thing to find is a leadoff man that can hit as best as [Choo] can hit and drive in runs and hit with power," Baker said. "So, there's a lot of dynamics there."

The Reds acquired Choo from the Indians this past December in a three-team deal involving nine players. Choo said the media are often asking him why he's having such a great start, but he's been a good player for years. While he played under the radar in Cleveland, Choo's career .385 OBP ranks 10th among active players (minimum 1,500 plate appearances).

"Actually, my career, every year is a slow start," Choo said. "You know, I'm not changing anything mechanically. Mechanics I'm not changing, but I think my mind is more comfortable this year."

Hitters have to enjoy the process of baseball. If one bad at-bat starts to get in their head it can turn into several, then eventually, a longer struggle at the plate. Branch Rickey once said, "If things don't come easy, there is no premium on effort. There should be joy in the chase, zest in the pursuit." This is a good description of Choo this year.

Baker says his center fielder is a perfectionist and a very hard worker. He often tells Choo to take the pressure off himself. This has helped.

"Sometimes it can be counter-productive," Baker said. "But I'd rather have that than the other guy that doesn't care."

Choo also attributes his comfort level at the plate to the good hitters -- Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips -- batting behind him and also to the change in his mentality. Hitters will often say when things are going well they moved from "I have to get a hit" to "I can get a hit."

Choo says this is exactly what has happened. "Some days I feel more focused," he said. "I think before, I [thought] about the whole at-bat; this year I think about every pitch."

Not only has Choo adjusted to a new league, he also changed positions, from right field to center, a move many in the analytical community argued was a questionable decision by the Reds considering Choo's defensive metrics last year were poor.

"I'm covering a lot of ground in center field," Choo said. "My career, I spent like 99 percent in right field. ... Center field, it's a lot of movement in the gaps."

Before games the Reds are helping Choo with his positioning, using scouting information on each hitter. First-base coach Billy Hatcher and right fielder Bruce have been a huge help, as well.

"The biggest adjustment of being in center field is being in charge because when he was in right or left somebody else was in charge," Baker said. "There’s a lot more running. He enjoys the challenge and feels very badly if he doesn't make [the play]."

So far, Choo's metrics show him struggling with his range -- his minus-7 defensive runs saved is the worst among major league outfielders (tied with Seattle's Mike Morse).

The NL Central could be a tight four-team race all year long and for now the Reds will live with the defense as long as Choo keeps getting on base more than 40 percent of the time.

Free agency is also looming after this season for Choo.

"You know, a lot of people ask me, 'Do you want to stay in Cincinnati, you are a free agent this year?' Actually, I don't know why but I feel more comfortable this year," he said. "I'm not really worried about free agency."

Choo thinks about this for a minute, then he begins to understand why he feels this way.

"I know why," he said. "Cincinnati lost two top prospects, then [they] bring me here so they want me here. So [I'm focusing] on a healthy year. ... Always, my goal is to be better than last year. That's my goal every year. So I want to get better every year."

Looking at it in very simplistic terms, professional baseball players are paid to hit and catch the ball. It is their job. Why would it matter if mentally a baseball player doesn't feel quite right? Yet, we hear this over and over again from players, coaches, managers and front office personnel: the mental state of a ballplayer affects production. Choo agreed.

"I think good things always becoming more true," he said.

Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.