Choo earns widespread respect in move to Cincinnati
Key acquisition humble, eager to make many transitions for new team
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Shin-Soo Choo was wondering how many at-bats he'd be getting in a Cactus League game the other day, so he asked Reds bench coach Chris Speier.
When Dusty Baker found out Choo had gone to Speier and not him, he asked Choo why.
"In Korea," said Choo, a native of Pusan, South Korea, "[the players] don't talk to the manager. The manager is like a god."
"Man," Baker replied, "you ain't in Korea now."
Ever respectful of leadership and ever genuine in his bid to win and be the best Major League player he can be, Choo has earned instant respect in this Cincinnati clubhouse for the way he's approached this team and this transition. Acquired from the Indians in a three-way trade in December, Choo has wasted no time working the room, making an effort to get to know each guy on a personal level.
"I spent six or seven years in the Minor Leagues," Choo said, "and I learned how important teammates are. The most important thing in baseball is knowing your teammates."
Those teammates know that Choo is a pivotal piece in their bid to repeat as National League Central Division champions. Because while he doesn't necessarily profile as the typical leadoff hitter -- or, for that matter, the typical center fielder -- he stabilizes the top of the batting order, allowing Brandon Phillips to slide down to the No. 2 or even No. 3 spot, both of which more naturally suit him.
Phillips had been thrust into the Reds' leadoff duties many times in recent years, including the stretch run and NL Division Series in 2012. But while Phillips is an asset at any spot in the order, he's not what you'd consider an on-base machine.
In today's game, a guy like Choo, who enters 2013 with a .381 lifetime OBP and got on base more than 40 percent of the time as recently as 2010, is an increasingly rare -- and valued -- commodity. This is especially true for a Reds team that had a lowly .254 OBP out of the leadoff spot last year -- the worst such mark in the Majors in three decades.
"I think everybody is going to be in a comfortable spot," right fielder Jay Bruce said. "In the past, Brandon was a 'wild card' guy, and we were fortunate to have that. But Brandon wasn't a really, really high on-base guy. Choo gets on base at a great rate. That's something that's huge. You get guys on base more often, and he puts pressure on the pitchers. Because he's not clogging the bases."
Choo makes it a habit of pointing out that his specific spot in the order doesn't matter to him, that he won't change his approach.
He is, however, taking the impact and importance of his baserunning in a leadoff role seriously. He's logged at least 21 steals in each of his three full seasons (2011 was marred by injury), and he sees room for improvement in that area.
"He's working with Eric Davis about leads and jumps," Baker said. "How to steal third, how to steal second. This guy is really, really curious, and he asks great questions. He wants to be better. That's really refreshing."
This is not the freshest of roles for the 30-year-old Choo. Former Indians manager Manny Acta, who was as desperate as Baker for some kind of leadoff presence last season, moved Choo up from the No. 3 hole and wound up starting him there 98 times. This was far from ideal for the Indians, as Choo has the power to change a game with a single swing. But for the Reds, who are not lacking middle-of-the-order thump, Choo's power is merely an added bonus.
The way Baker sees it, the typical NL leadoff man, limited in run-producing opportunities because he is preceded by the pitcher's spot after the first inning, might be good for 50 or so RBIs (NL leadoff men averaged 53 RBIs last year). But Choo has averaged 19 homers in his career, so he's all but certain to drive in himself more than your typical No. 1 guy.
"Mr. Choo, he can hit," Baker said. "And it's hard to find bats, you know? Bona fide bats."
Choo is a bona fide bat, all right. But it's going to be interesting to see how he adapts to center field -- a position he's rarely played -- in games that count, especially in a contract year. Choo's defensive metrics in right field took a tumble last year. After missing essentially half of the 2011 season with thumb and oblique injuries, he appeared timid around the walls, fearing injury. Now that his first foray in free agency is riding on his '13 production, he could be just as careful this season.
For now, the Reds could not be more pleased with Choo in center. Though he hasn't been challenged much to this point, he has performed well under the high sky.
"I think he's going to be fine out there," said Bruce, who would likely shift to center if the Choo experiment doesn't pan out. "I think he's going to do well. With the guys we have surrounding him, we cover plenty of ground out there, and he's going to cover his fair share of ground. And we don't play in Arizona or Colorado or San Diego, so I think it's going to be a non-issue, in my opinion."
The only issue for Choo is continued health. In camp thus far, he's dealt with minor quadriceps soreness that held him out of the lineup for a couple days. And on Wednesday, he was nursing a sore back that required quite a bit of treatment in the trainer's room. But he still suited up for the game against the Giants and continued his scorching spring at the plate.
Far beyond the spring statistics and the shift to center, Choo has used this camp to ingratiate himself with his new mates, and they've warmed to him in a hurry.
"He's awesome," Bruce said. "Hard worker, very regimented. Really wants to win, wants to be a great player, does everything. And that's something that these days is few and far between. You see less and less guys doing everything. He hits home runs, he steals bases, he gets on-base, he plays a tremendous outfield. And you can see why, too, in his work and his preparation."