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Choo has had a rough year

The MLB veteran started the best season of his life, but ended with the worst
Dec 27,2018
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[REUTERS/YONHAP]
While most Korean baseball players go from high school to the KBO rookie draft, every year sees a few confident hopefuls skip Korea altogether and head straight for the MLB. Typically, it doesn’t end well - it could take a few months or a few years, but most players eventually come back to Korea after some uneventful years in the minors and finally enter the KBO.

Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers is not one of those players.

After an astonishing 14 seasons in the major league, Choo had an inconsistent, but record-breaking 2018.

On May 27, Choo succeeded Hideki Matsui’s record for the most career home runs by an Asian player in the majors. Then he was named to compete at the All-Star Game in July for the first time in his career.

On July 20, Choo made headlines when he extended his on-base streak to 52 games, the longest single-season streak in the Rangers history and the longest amongst all active players in the major league.

In the first 90 games of the season, Choo had a .293 batting average with 18 home runs.

“Baseball keeps on changing,” Choo said. “I thought my baseball had to change too.”

Up until the 2017 season, Choo had a smaller swing and was quicker. But a new leg kick swing allowed him to make bigger hits with less accuracy. His change was successful in the first half of the season, but it all went wrong in the second half.

Despite an impressive start, in the second half of the season Choo was like a completely different player. His new swing started to get shaky and he added only three more home runs. Due to this, Choo finished the season with a .264 batting average, 21 home runs and a .377 on-base percentage. Choo finished one short of his season best for home runs, at 22.

Although he finished the season in a rut, Choo’s on-base percentage was good enough to place him at seventh in the American league.

“Next year, I think I’ll lift my leg up just a little,” Choo said. “I’ll keep the posture where I transfer my weight.”

Once the season ended, there were rumors that Choo might be traded. Since the Rangers finished last in the American League West, it is likely that the team will look to restructure its roster.

Since Choo only has two years remaining on his contract and only $42 million remaining in his salary, he has now become a more flexible option for other clubs to sign.

Although there were rumors regarding the issue, Choo continued his training for the upcoming season at home until the day he left for Korea.

“A player is like a product, so we can get traded at any time,” Choo said.

Just as he has been since the day he arrived in the United States, Choo continues to be the first one to start training for the upcoming season.

Below are edited excerpts from an interview with Choo.



Q. Looking back at the 2018 season, what do you think about your season?

A
. The first half and the second half of the season were clearly divided. I set [the Texas Rangers’] on-base record at 52 consecutive games, played in the All-Star game and set the home run record for an Asian player. They weren’t my goals, but they happened. But in the second half, well, I’ve never had that kind of a struggle. All the good memories and the records I had at the beginning of the season didn’t feel that exciting once the season ended. The fans were probably more disappointed.



Although you struggled in the second half of the season, you still had a good on-base percentage. How do you feel about that?

I’m glad to see my on-base percentage get more recognition. As times change, there will be days when the on-base streak gets more recognition. No matter how fast you are, you can’t steal bases from home: getting on-base is the start of scoring a run - that’s where baseball starts. I can hit a home run and can score 10 runs in one inning, but basically baseball is a game from the first to the ninth inning. I often tell this to the younger players.

Whether you strike out with just three pitches or after one or two balls, the record is the same. But if you keep on watching the ball, that’ll stack up the stress level to the pitchers, which provides an opportunity for the team to win. When I asked the pitchers, they feel more pressured about a batter that requires the pitcher to throw 10 balls to get him out than a batter that can possibly hit a home run at the first pitch.



Typically, players who use a leg kick swing change their form when they become veteran players, but you moved in the opposite direction. Is there a specific reason for that direction?

I thought about it for about two years. When I asked the coaches and my teammates about changing my swing, they were worried and said I didn’t have to because I have already accomplished enough in my career. Justin Turner [of the LA Dodgers] was successful, but he attempted a leg kick when he was younger. I was told that for a player like me, who is so used to the current swing, it won’t be easy to change. But I still decided to change my swing. I wanted to be better and I didn’t want to regret anything. After I retire, I don’t want to have any second thoughts.



Wasn’t it difficult to change your swing?

After I made my decision, I was confident. I hit a lot during spring camp this year. It was a little difficult once the season started because it’s still uncertain even when I fully focus on the pitcher, but I was focusing on my swing. When I did my leg kick, my bat just made its swing to bad balls because I was rushing. So I tried to compromise. My batting came back in May - I found my rhythm.



You were pretty inconsistent throughout the season; did you ever doubt yourself?

Since I prepared a lot, I thought I could do it. Even if it doesn’t work, I have certainty when I start. When I started my career in the minor league after graduating from Busan High School, I didn’t hope to become a major leaguer. I believed that I would become a major leaguer. Rather than a wish, I had a firm belief.



Did you know that you would play in the majors for this long?

No, not really. I just wanted to be different from the others. I thought it was better to do nothing than to live a normal life. The major league has the world’s best baseball players. I wanted to play one game in that kind of a place. I just played thinking that. Money, pride and records just came along.



From your rookie season to now, you’re still the first player to show up at the stadium. Is there a reason why?

Since I’m a veteran now, I tried to take more time and relax like the others, but I couldn’t really do it. Just like I have been throughout my life, I’m the first one to show up and the last one to finish training. If I don’t do that, I feel anxious. Still, baseball is what I enjoy the most: it is such a blessing to do something that I like. If I don’t enjoy going to the baseball stadium next year, I’m going to retire right away.



hat other meaning do you have in your life aside from baseball?

Until two to three years ago, if I wasn’t playing baseball well, I couldn’t sleep at night. When I did that, my family didn’t feel comfortable. So even when I had a 0-for-5 game, I didn’t act all sensitive at home. I’m the first to start and the last to finish training, but I don’t bring baseball home with me. I don’t have a hobby yet.

I’m very competitive, so I’ll try my best at whatever I do. Even if I worked in a restaurant, I’d try to be the best. When I play video games, I want to play against professional gamers and if I learned golf, I would want to play with Tiger Woods. So while I’m active as a professional baseball player, I won’t be able to do other things.

BY KIM SEEK [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]