Ji-Man Choi Pulled a Surprising Switcherooon July 30, 2020 at 4:30 pm

Ji-Man Choi Pulled a Surprising Switcheroo

The downtime produced by shelter-in-place orders and other restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic has inspired many people to take up new hobbies or polish previously dormant skills. The Jaffe-Span household, for example, has created a windowsill garden with herbs and vegetables, and every person on social media can name a friend or five who has tracked their recent forays into breadmaking. Ji-Man Choi apparently used his time to rediscover the advantages of switch-hitting. On Sunday, in the first major league game in which he batted right-handed, the Rays’ 29-year-old first baseman clubbed a home run off Blue Jays lefty Anthony Kay.

It wasn’t a cheapie, either. Choi hit a 429-foot shot that came off the bat at 109.9 mph — the second hardest-hit homer of his five-season career:

The South Korea native, who began his stateside professional career in the Mariners’ organization in 2010, and who does throw right-handed despite regularly batting left-handed, isn’t a complete newcomer to switch-hitting. In 2015, after breaking his right fibula during spring training, he spent time learning to switch-hit under the tutelage of Mariners Triple-A hitting coach Howard Johnson, who spent 14 seasons switch-hitting in the majors, primarily with the Mets and Tigers. Upon returning to action in August, first with the team’s Arizona League affiliate and then with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers, Choi went 6-for-14 with a double and a walk while batting righty against left-handed pitchers, and 0-for-2 with two walks while batting righty against righties.

“I did it, and it worked well, so I kept doing it” Choi told MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez (through an interpreter) the following spring. Gonzalez noted at the time that Choi’s leg kick was more pronounced from the right side of the plate. “But I don’t worry about the form,” Choi said, “I just concentrate on hitting the ball. See the ball, hit the ball.”

That conversation took place in the context of Choi having joined the Angels via the Rule 5 draft. Less than three weeks later, however, the team asked him to abandon switch-hitting, with manager Mike Scioscia saying that the Angels felt Choi’s left-handed swing was better, and that they planned to use him more in that capacity.

“If that’s what the coaches want, I will follow their instructions,” Choi said at the time. “It’s bittersweet because I can’t hit right-handed, but that’s what the coaches want, so I will do that.” While he made the Angels that spring, he struggled, going just 1-for-18 before being demoted to Triple-A Salt Lake City, that after clearing waivers. He bounced back and forth between levels that year, hitting just .170/.271/.339 with five homers in 129 PA, and continued to drift around the majors, spending 2017 in the Yankees’ organization, making six appearances with the big club (he homered in the first two), then playing a total of 12 games with the Brewers while spending the first two-plus months of the 2018 season in their organization. Traded to the Rays for Brad Miller and cash on June 10, 2018, he’s since settled in as solid platoon first baseman and occasional designated hitter. In 2019, he hit .261/.363/.459 (121 wRC+) with 19 homers and 1.9 WAR in 487 PA while helping the Rays to an AL Wild Card berth.

Choi has largely been shielded from hitting against southpaws in his career. In his time with the Angels and Yankees, just six of his 137 PA were against lefties, and then 25 out of 189 in his split 2018 season; during those three seasons, he didn’t start a single game against lefties. Last year, the Rays wrote him into the lineup 13 times in that context, and let him face lefties 94 times. The results weren’t great; he hit .210/.309/.321 (75 wRC+), compared to .274/.377/.492 (137 wRC+) against righties. In fact, over the past five seasons, Choi has one of the largest platoon splits among left-handed batters:

I let that table run long simply to squeeze in guys like Ohtani and Hosmer for name-recognition purposes. Most of these players haven’t had a whole lot of exposure to lefties, at least lately, and so it’s fair to suggest that these sample sizes are small, but yikes, those are some lousy performances. Choi is among the top six here in terms of his wRC+ against both righties and lefties, but he’s still pretty bad against the latter, and in fact all of these guys except Ohtani and the now-retired Ortiz are obvious platoon candidates.

Choi simply doesn’t hit the ball as hard against lefties. Here’s a look at his 2019 batted ball splits:

Choi at least did a better job elevating the ball against lefties in 2019 than before; his overall career split includes a 51.9% groundball rate and an average launch angle of 8.8 degrees. Still, his 2019 performance in that capacity isn’t one you’d want to write into the lineup, and so there’s no harm in his trying something different.

Via the Tampa Bay Times‘ Marc Topkin, Choi has typically begun his first round of batting practice by swinging from the right side, “just messing around.” After manager Kevin Cash brought up the subject during the Rays’ summer camp, he took a few right-handed at-bats in simulated games. Via MLB.com’ Juan Toribio, “Cash said he guessed that Choi was going to try hitting right-handed.”

When the Blue Jays brought Kay in to replace Hatch in the third inning of Sunday’s game, Choi moved to the right-handed batter’s box and struck out swinging, but he homered on the first pitch of his second plate appearance against Kay. After batting left-handed against Ken Giles in the seventh inning, he switched sides when elbow soreness forced Giles to depart in mid-plate appearance in favor of lefty Brian Moran. Inheriting a 3-1 count, Moran issued ball four, though the walk was charged to Giles and the PA recorded as Choi batting lefty. Said Cash afterwards (via Toribio):

“I didn’t want to ask him, didn’t want to persuade him one way or the other, just wanted it to be his choice. That’s pretty impressive to be able to do that. Switch-hit and then not do it for five years, other than kind of goofing around in the cage, and then he comes off against a good Major League pitcher and hits the ball into the deepest part of the ballpark.”

In the wake of Sunday’s game, Choi was noncommittal about continuing to switch-hit, reportedly smiling while telling reporters, “I still don’t know. Maybe.” Since then, he’s taken two more plate appearances from the right side, striking out against the BravesGrant Dayton on Monday and Tyler Matzek on Tuesday; before the latter game, he was listed on the Rays’ lineup card as a switch-hitter:

Now, you’re probably wondering what kind of precedents there are for players taking up switch-hitting in the middle of their major league careers. Alas, it’s not an easy question to answer. Unable to make any headway with our splits tool or Baseball-Reference’s Stathead (formerly the Play Index), I asked B-Ref’s Sean Forman for some help (thanks, Sean!). He offered me two lists, one of players in B-Ref’s register who don’t fit neatly into the bats left/right/both or throws left/right buckets, largely because they stopped switch-hitting mid-career (as J.T. Snow and Shane Victorino did) or threw left-handed a handful of times (like 19th century hurlers Larry Corcoran and Tony Mullane). The other list was of players with at least 50 PA from each side of the plate in their careers who had the largest gaps in games and plate appearances between their inaugural PAs from each side. Many of the players on both lists are pitchers, making them largely irrelevant in this context (if you want something on switch-pitchers, give this a read). From among the rest, Forman cautioned that Retrosheet stores the batter handedness for the season as R/L/B, assumes the batter’s handedness based on the pitcher’s handedness, and does an inconsistent job of recording the exceptions, likely because they weren’t always noted in the scorebooks from which the database is built.

Long story short, I vetted the two lists and found two players who made substantial attempts to convert to switch-hitting in the middle of their major league careers: Tito Fuentes and Bill Russell, both light-hitting middle infielders who debuted in the 1960s and enjoyed long careers. The former took up switch-hitting and it stuck, but for the latter, it did not.

The Cuban-born Fuentes debuted with the Giants in 1965, and batted solely from the right side for the first three seasons, according to his B-Ref page, though his B-Ref splits page records his work as “vs RHP as LHB” and “vs LHP as RHB.” For those three years, he scuffled, batting .226/.253/.311 in 713 PA against righties and .266/.314/.360 in 312 PA against lefties. That winter, the Giants acquired second baseman Ron Hunt in a rare trade with the Dodgers, and optioned the 24-year-old Fuentes, who held out, to Triple-A Phoenix to start the 1968 season. He took up switch-hitting there but suffered a season-ending broken leg in May. He finally returned to the Giants in May 1969, and spent the remainder of his career — which ran through 1978 with the Giants, Padres, Tigers, and A’s — as a switch-hitter, batting a thin .270/.316/.326 in 3,541 PA against righties and .282/.309/.407 in 1,507 PA against lefties. I don’t have his full career wRC+ by handedness; while it’s noteworthy that he did improve against pitchers of either hand, he did so in more hitter-friendly environments, so getting the full sense of scale is difficult. Overall, he improved from a 66 wRC+ batting only righty in those first three seasons to 86 as a switch-hitter thereafter.

As for Russell, he spent his entire career (1969-86) with the Dodgers, and from ’73-81 was the shortstop in baseball history’s longest-running infield alongside first baseman Steve Garvey, second baseman Davey Lopes, and third baseman Ron Cey, a unit that helped the team to four pennants and a championship in the last of those years. A career .263/.310/.338 (82 wRC+) hitter, Russell batted exclusively from the right side except in 1971, when, as a 22-year-old, he switch-hit; that year, he batted .227/.252/.336 in 115 PA as a lefty, and .228/.278/.317 in 108 PA as a righty, both similarly terrible.

The move was something the Dodgers successfully pulled off with Maury Wills in 1958, his eighth year in the minors and just a year before his midseason arrival in the majors helped the team to an NL pennant. Learning to bat left-handed was a game-changer, and not just for Wills. The move helped him take advantage of his blazing speed, as he could chop the ball left-handed and leg out infield hits. Once on base, he was a true threat, leading the NL in stolen bases in each of his first six full seasons, setting a record with 104 in 1962, when he won NL MVP honors, and restoring the steal as a weapon in a low-offense era.

Russell, however, “couldn’t adjust,” Dodgers vice president Al Campanis told the Los Angeles Times‘ Bill Shirley in 1985. Upon returning to batting righty only, Russell hit for a 100 wRC+ in 1972, one of just two times in his career he would match the league average (the other was in ’82), though his glove made him a lineup mainstay.

Shirley’s article says that Augie Galan, who spent 1936-49 in the majors, mostly with the Cubs and Dodgers, took up switch-hitting in the middle of his major league career, but more recent research shows that he actually began as a switch-hitter, and then abandoned it, with occasional exceptions.

Anyway, while making for what I hope is an amusing historical tangent, I don’t think there’s a ton to learn from the examples of Fuentes and Russell other than “this might work, it might not.” Both Fuentes and Russell were much younger than Choi when they began switch-hitting (25 for the former, 22 for the latter) but neither was what you’d call a good hitter; their gloves and the ability to hit a thin .260 were enough to keep them playing regularly. Choi is a very good hitter against righties, which is enough to keep him employed, and a very bad hitter against lefties, which is enough to keep him pigeonholed as platoon material. It should be interesting to see if he maintains this experiment; if Sunday’s surprise is any indication, it could be a lot of fun.

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