By Troy Stangarone
When Choo Shin-soo makes his first All-Star appearance in tonight’s Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star Game he will become only the third Korean born player to take part in the mid-summer classic. While it will be a career highlight for Choo to join Park Chan-ho and Kim Byung-hyun as the only Korean born players to be selected as All-Stars, he may also be one of the more underappreciated players from Asia to play in the MLB.
Without question, the best position player from Asia to play in the MLB is Ichiro Suzuki. With more than 3,000 hits, the third most home runs by a player from Asia, 10 All-Star selections, an MVP award, and Rookie of the Year Award, Ichiro stands apart from other players that have crossed the Pacific. What may be in more dispute is that Choo Shin-soo is likely the second-best player from Asia to play in the majors.
Pitchers from Asia have tended to stand out more than position players in the MLB. Starting with Park Chan-ho, there have been a string of pitchers to come to the United States and became stars. The Yankees’ Marhiano Tanaka and the Cubs’ Yu Darvish are current star pitchers from Japan. When it comes to position players, some like Koske Fukidome who debuted with a two-home run game, have quickly faded. Hideki Matsui might be the default answer for the best position player from Asia after Ichiro, but that may no longer be the case.
While the idea that Choo might only be surpassed by Ichiro among Asian born players in the history of MLB is not likely the casual fan’s first impression, it is a debate worth having. One way of judging players performance is how many wins above replacement (WAR) that they produce. The idea behind WAR is essentially a measure of the value of a player to their team in terms of contribution to wins over an average replacement player. As MLB heads into its All-Star break, Jose Ramirez of the Indians, Mike Trout of the Angels, and Mookie Betts of the Red Sox lead the way with 6.5 WAR. In essence, they have been worth six and a half more wins for their respective teams than a replacement level player. Choo currently ranks 40th in MLB with 3.0 WAR.
Among players from Asia, Choo trails only Ichiro in terms of career WAR and has surpassed all of the pitchers who have come to the majors from Asia. Over his career, Choo’s performance on the field has been worth 34.6 WAR to his teams. His career WAR is closing in on three times that of Hideki Matsui (34.6 to 13.1), and so far he has achieved that only playing for more seasons than Matsui. Beyond his career WAR totals, Choo has had three seasons in his career where he has produced seasons of 5 WAR or greater, while Matsui topped out at 3 WAR during his best season.
In addition to being named an All-Star for the first time, Choo achieved a new milestone this year when he passed Matsui to become the all-time home run leader among Asian players. Choo enters the All-Star break with 186 home runs.
While some might argue that Choo has played more seasons than other Asian players, his per season WAR averages compare well. Though, it will be interesting to see if Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka, two players with better career WAR averages, are able to have better careers in the end.
Others in time, such as Shohei Ohtani, may surpass the Choo’s achievements, but as he comes near the end of his playing career he is arguably the second most successful Asian player to play in the major leagues. Choo might not have received the fanfare of players such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Matsui, or Koske Fukidome when they came to the United States, but his career will likely surpass theirs and other well-known names.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photos from Keith Allison’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.