Ji-Man Choi sums up the Tampa Bay Rays pretty well. He’s a 6-1, 260-pound first baseman playing in his fifth MLB organization. He’s unassuming. He does things differently. But just like the Rays, Choi makes it work.
The Rays and Choi will take on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2020 World Series beginning Tuesday night. The South Korean first baseman has turned into a fan favorite with the Rays, combining a left-handed bat with a smile that rarely leaves his face on the diamond. Even the broadcast cameras have gotten in on the act during the playoffs, frequently using Choi’s reactions as the Tampa Bay reaction shots after big moments.
Choi should start each game of the World Series that the Dodgers pitch a right-handed pitcher in, at least. And if the recent past is any indication, he’ll find success, too. The focus for L.A. might be on getting Randy Arozarena out, but with Choi hitting shortly behind him in the order, there’s more than one big bat to worry about. It’s Choi, the most fun player in the World Series, who could swing the series in the Rays’ favor.
WORLD SERIES 2020: Updated TV schedule, scores, results
Why Ji-Man Choi’s success against Gerrit Cole should worry Dodgers
The pitcher Choi owns most in baseball won’t be opposing him in the World Series. That’s Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, and that’s in part because Choi homered off Cole for the fourth time in his career during the ALDS.
But even though Cole won’t be on the other side, pitchers like Cole will be, guys with 100-mph fastballs and nasty breaking pitches. Even when Choi makes outs against good pitching, they’re not usually of the ugly variety. He puts up comptitive at-bats even against the best.
Choi homered in Game 5 of the ALCS off of Josh James, one of the nastiest relievers in baseball. Choi took a sharp curveball just down to open the at-bat, then took two 97-mph fastballs to work the count to 2-1. James tried to beat Choi down and in with a 96-mph heater, but Choi didn’t miss it.
The Dodgers will send on all sorts of pitchers who can throw gas and really spin the baseball. The Washington Post’s Jesse Dougherty recently wrote of Choi, “Ji-Man Choi takes an impressive amount of close pitches.” The types of competitive at-bats that Choi puts up against the most talented arms are the type of ABs that can swing a whole series.
Choi doesn’t stop smiling
It doesn’t really matter the play. Choi smiles after striking out against a nasty pitch. He smiles after making plays in the field. He definitely smiles after hitting home runs.
It’s hard to watch Choi and think anything other than, “This guy really enjoys being on the baseball field.” In a modern MLB that has in some ways become robotic — similar mechanics, similar approaches, similar outcomes — Choi’s smile can stand out. You can get a good look at Choi’s enthusiasm in this clip from Cut4:
Earlier this season, after hitting a cue-shot single, Choi demonstrated that he’d be a great pool player (who’d have a smile on his face playing that game, too).
And check out how happy Choi was in this Instagram post during and after fishing with his family in South Korea during quarantine.
Family fishing time. 🐟🐟🐟 손목운동 제대로 했음!!😁 •영종도 정성레저바다 낚시터 🎣•
A post shared by 만지 (@ji_man_choi) on
Choi can pick it
Choi had been dealing with a hamstring injury that has prevented him from consistently playing the field since mid-September. But Tampa Bay has trusted Choi at first base during the ALDS and ALCS, suggesting he’ll continue to man that spot during the World Series. Choi’s frame wouldn’t point to him being a great fielder, but his stats in 2020 were above average, and he passes the eye test with the soft hands he uses to pick the ball out of the dirt.
Fangraphs shows Choi was above average in both Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (1.7) and Range Runs Above Average (1.3). That’s an improvement on being a slightly negative fielder in 2019, so maybe he breaks down about even overall. But it sure is fun to watch Choi play first base.
And check out this quick montage of Choi’s first-base mastery during the Rays’ series win over the Astros.
Choi can hit right-handed, too
Choi is officially a left-handed hitter. He’s not a switch hitter. Yet earlier this season, Choi hit a home run right-handed. Choi taught himself to switch-hit in 2015 but hadn’t broken it out in game action. That changed July 26.
His first time batting right-handed in the major leagues ended with a strikeout, so it seemed that maybe the experiment would end. Nope. Batting against Toronto’s Anthony Kay for a second time from the right side, Choi launched a ball deep to left-center and out of Tropicana Field.
Baseball Reference’s splits page appears to get a bit thrown off in how to classify Choi’s right-handed at-bats, but it looks like he’s tried hitting from the right side about 10 times in 2020. It’s unlikely we’ll see Choi try that in the World Series — the platoon-minded Rays are more likely to pinch hit than openly allow Choi to do that. But who’s to say Choi won’t walk up and position himself in the right-handed batters’ box all by himself? It worked once this year already, after all.
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