BY CHRIS HAAS
Former Reds Center Fielder Shin Soo Choo signed a massive 7 year/130 million deal with the Texas Rangers this offseason. Shin Soo Choo earned this payday by hitting .285/.423/.462 for the Reds in 2014. His .423 OBP (on-base percentage) was especially impressive, as only teammate Joey Votto (.435) had a higher OBP in the National League. Choo got on base, hit for average, and he hit for power.
Meanwhile, the Reds future center-fielder Billy Hamilton spent most of 2013 in Louisville. Coming into the season, he was the main attraction for the Bats, the AAA minor-league affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds. Hamilton earned his novelty status in 2012 by breaking the all-time minor-league record for most steals in a season with the AA Dayton Dragons. He finished with 155 swiped bags. For comparison, this was 25 more than Rickey Henderson’s MLB record of 130. Henderson is widely hailed as the best base-stealer of all time. Hamilton’s face was found on the cover of ESPN, The New York Times, and every prospect handbook in America. Expectations were high for the ultimate speedster.
It should also be noted that Hamilton produced a gorgeous .311/.410/.420 line in 2012 so its not as if he were only stealing bases. He was hitting with authority and getting on base at a well-above average pace. He was the perfect prototypical lead-off hitter.
It’s safe to say, given all of his hype, 2013 was a huge disappointment for Hamilton. He never looked comfortable at the plate in Louisville, evidenced by his very pedestrian .256/.308/.343 line. After seeing this sub-par batting line, many have chosen to write him off as “no-bat bum.”
Despite his struggles in 2013, Hamilton will, in all likelihood, be the Reds everyday center fielder in 2014.
On the surface, losing Choo and replacing him with Hamilton appears catastrophic for the Reds. Choo had a .423 OBP compared to Hamilton’s .308 OBP. Choo had 21 homeruns and Hamilton had 6- and at the minor league level, no less. However, there are reasons for hope.
Choo was out of position in center field for the Reds in 2013. He had spent 2012 in right-field, and failed to produce even average defense in the less-challenging position. So how bad was Choo’s defense in 2013?
Defensive Runs Saved is a tool scouts use to measure defensive performance. Among center fielders, the Brewers Carlos Gomez was the best defender, he scored an outstanding 26.5. Meaning his above-average defense saved the Brewers 26.5 runs over the course of the season.
Shin Soo Choo, on the other hand, was the worst defensive center fielder in MLB in 2013 according to DRS. He was worth negative -13.3 runs saved, meaning he would give up 13 more runs than an average center-fielder over the course of the season.
For reference here’s a baseline for DRS, courtesy of Fangraphs.com
Gold Glove Caliber: +15
Above Average: +5
Below Average: -5
Meanwhile, Billy Hamilton’s first year in center field (he transitioned from the infield) was a huge success. He handled the job admirably and his range is considered elite by scouts. Oliver, a popular MLB statistical projection method, estimates Billy Hamilton will be worth 15.6 Defensive Runs Saved in 2014. Plainly stated, the projection system believes Hamilton can win a Gold Glove in his rookie season for the Reds.
BsR, a saber method used to rate base-running ability rated Choo -.6 in 2013. His base running was below-average in 2014. His high “caught-stealing” percentage indicates he shouldn’t be attempting to steal at all, yet he attempted 31 stolen bases.
Unsurprisingly, Oliver projects Hamilton to be elite on the base paths- with a 10.6 rating at the MLB level in 2014. For comparison, super human Mike Trout rated 8.6 in BSR in 2013. Trout has stolen 86 bases over the past two seasons.
Looking beyond the Box Score
Using traditional statistics the drop-off from Choo to Hamilton looks immense. But projection methods believe Hamilton will be worth 3 wins above replacement if he can just hit .260 with a .320 OBP, given his outstanding defensive and base-running abilities. Choo projects to be worth 4 wins above replacement in 2014, even after his monster career year.
With youth and upside on Hamilton’s side, I don’t blame the Reds for letting 31 year-old Choo walk for nearly 20 million a year.