Honoring Shin-Soo Choo: Derek Jeter of the "Common Man"
Perhaps no better player captures the indignities of our world than the long baseball career of Shin-Soo Choo. While he is but one of hundreds of players who can claim similar or better stat lines to Derek Jeter despite nowhere near the fanfare or recognition – Edwin Encarnacion, anyone? – Choo’s career is unique because of the many ways in which Choo’s career was Derek Jeter’s career, with only a few differences.
In many measurable respects, Shin-Soo Choo and Derek Jeter were nearly identical players. Among their similarities, both had long careers of over 15 seasons during which they were strong, meaningful contributors to their respective teams. They were similar hitters: Jeter was slightly more of a singles hitter, Choo more of a power hitter, meaning Choo averaged 6 more home runs per year and 20 more walks while Jeter averaged around 30 more singles. Both averaged exactly 77 RBI. Both had on-base percentages of exactly .377. Their respective slugging averages were .447 for Choo and .440 for Jeter, almost identical. And they had similar numbers of stolen bases. One would struggle to pick between their stat lines if shown blindly.
But modern statistics do not regard them as equal players, with Jeter’s WAR nearly twice as high as Choo’s. A comparison between the two players shows the flaws in the WAR statistic, which rewards Jeter for similar offensive production because he played a more difficult defensive position. This despite Jeter’s notorious defensive shortcomings playing that defensive position. Had the Yankees not caved to public pressure and instead played the defensively superior Alex Rodriguez as their shortstop during the Jeter years and instead moved Jeter to third base, Jeter’s WAR would be 10 to 15 percent lower based on position alone, while the Yankees would have been aggregately better off. Meanwhile had Choo played in center field rather than right for the bulk of his career, as he was perfectly capable, his WAR would be 20 to 25 percent higher. The career decisions to play each in a position for which they were ill-suited netted a massive shift in accolades and recognition in Jeter’s direction and away from Choo’s, despite each being an arguably poor decision for each player’s teams’ ultimate prospects. Had they been positioned correctly, the two would enjoy similar WAR. Team general managers, likely secretly realizing this, opted to pay them similar annualized inflation-adjusted salaries over time, perhaps the one footnote of redeeming justice for this otherwise travesty in the court of public recognition.
And yet one is a first ballot Hall of Famer while the other will never sniff the Hall.
Ultimately, the reason for the difference in accolades between Jeter and Choo is far more than a story about statistics. And while the ultimate differences that drove one to near cult-like admiration and the other to the long-term status of a forgettable non-entity are obvious, they are worth underscoring:
Jeter played in big market New York, with robust TV and media attention and a cult of celebrity shrouded around him, while Choo played in a collection of cities uniquely defined by their small media markets and limited national attention – physically and time zone-isolated Seattle, small market Cleveland and Cincinnati, and the media-isolated Texas Rangers at a time when Houston was gobbling Texas’ share of the national attention.
Jeter played on one team, while Choo played on multiple. Everybody loves a hometown loyalist.
Jeter played on good teams, while Choo mostly played on mediocre ones: while Choo helped lead multiple of his teams to the playoffs, Jeter’s teams won five World Series’ during his tenure, most of it due to his collection of All-Star teammates, especially pitchers, that included Roger Clemens, David Cone, David Wells, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, CC Sabbathia, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and Alfonso Soriano, among others.
Jeter played for the Yankees.
These differences undercut the notion that baseball is a sport that uniquely parses science and statistics from the temptation to build for itself a cult of personality. As much as society is shrouded in people who pretend to worship science but who actually worship celebrity, celebrification is ultimately a driving force in baseball too. Where you play matters. Who you play with matters. Luck matters. And statistics only kind of do. And the populist scorn toward overrated “elites” by the unwashed – but in many cases just as worthy masses – is just as justified in baseball as it is everywhere else.
As advocates for the “common man and woman”, let’s take a moment to tell it like it is: as the season begins anew, let’s pay a tribute to Shin-Soo Choo.