Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AL EastAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBTampa Bay Rays

Can Ji-Man Choi Switch Hit?

Over the years, Ji-Man Choi has taken batting practice from both sides before games. Hitting a round right-handed loosens him up, he says. In Summer Camp, he took it one step farther. In a group of mainly lefty hitters, Choi decided he would hit right-handed against the southpaws taking the mound. He did it to be a good teammate, it was fun, and he had the best-hit ball of the day.

In 2015, Choi went 6-for-14 as a righty on the Mariners’s AAA team. As he was shuffled through the Angels, Yankees, and Brewers, he was told to stick to hitting on the left side of the plate. Choi has not verbally committed to doing this permanently, and the Rays’ social media accounts still list him as a left-hander when posting their lineups. He has taken one at bat left-on-left, which reminds us that he does struggle against lefties.

 

First Things First

 

Can he hit from the right side? So far, it’s enough to keep it as a possibility. In nine PA through August 12, he is hitting .250/.333/.625 with one HR and five strikeouts. His second hit is a go-ahead single off Red Sox reliever Jeffrey Springs — with two outs and Jose Martinez on the bench. Martinez actually hit for the following hitter, Joey Wendle. If that doesn’t prove Cash’s trust in his newest right-hander, I don’t know what would.

He does tend to swing and miss, getting armsy and therefore susceptible to outside pitches and high velocities. Pitchers similarly attack teammate Yandy Diaz on the outer third, and he has adjusted by shooting everything the other way. If Ji-Man can do that, it would eliminate one of the easier ways pitchers get him out.

 

Moving Up in the World

 

In left-on-left matchups, Choi is hitting .185/.288/.296 with a 64 wRC+ in his career. That wRC+ is almost 100 points lower than his total as a righty, which is 161. When the pitcher has the hand advantage, his walk rate is in its usual double digit territory, but his power disappears. That .111 ISO is literally half of the .221 mark he has reached against right handers in his career. Outside of an exciting walkoff home run off Brand Hand, there’s been little to like in these matchups.

When Choi joined the Rays, defense was a big question mark. In 2019, his -1 DRS in 842 innings — by far the most playing time of his career — showed that he is a capable defender at first base. With that development, he elevated his status from mostly a bench player in his major league career to a platoon first baseman.

The Rays are not very strict on platoons, but the difference in production against lefties (64 wRC+) versus righties (124) is hard to miss. On every Rays roster with Choi, there has been a right-handed hitting first baseman to complement him: in 2018 it was CJ Cron, in 2019, it was Yandy Diaz and then Travis d’Arnaud, and now it’s Jose Martinez. If Choi were to develop a competent swing from the right side that comes close to the production of his lefty stroke, he would be a true everyday first baseman.

 

Left-Right-Left

 

When a good switch-hitter is in the opposing team’s lineup, Kevin Cash usually turns him around as much as possible to limit the consistency in his at bats. That’s because he knows it isn’t easy to hit a lefty reliever after facing a right-handed starter, for example. The same is true of guys on his team. Choi is better when hitting on the side that he hit on in his previous at bat.

 

Here is the breakout of his stats through August 13:

 

First PA in a row (L):

.133/.316/.133, 31.6 K% (Both Hits Came As Pinch Hitter)

 

First PA in a row (R):

.167/.167/.167, 83.3 K%

 

Second+ PA in a row (L):

.222/.303/.407, 27.3 K%

 

Second+ PA in a row (R):

.500/.500/2.000, 0 K%

 

Final Thoughts

 

On August 16th, Choi hit left-handed with Anthony Kay on the mound — the guy he hit his righty HR against. Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola seems to prefer emphasizing Choi’s lefty swing before being a full time switch hitter. Once he heats up from the left side, then he can focus more on the other.

This does sound similar to the exchange that confined him to one batters’ box a few years ago, but there is some cause for optimism: Choi will presumably stay with the Rays through 2020 and into 2021, so he has one chance to fully prepare from each side of the plate in the offseason and prove himself. His decision to switch hit was sudden, and he commented after hitting a home run off Tyler Glasnow in the televised intrasquad game that he didn’t feel completely ready for the season. The whole team started to click about a week before he decided to hit lefty against Kay, so it’s very possible he starts to pick it up as his left-handed at bats accumulate and then reconsider his handedness status.

Nicholas Lobraico

High school student, former baseball player. Pitching enthusiast. Rays man in a Yankees land. Follow me on Twitter @LobraicoNick