The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired Ji-Man Choi from the Tampa Bay Rays, so what does the Korean infielder bring to his new organization?
The Pittsburgh Pirates recently acquired what looks to be their first baseman for the 2023 season in Ji-Man Choi. The long-time Tampa Bay Rays infielder brings a bat that consistently gets on base and could provide plus power from the left side of the plate. While not the best defensive first baseman to ever play the position, he can hold his own with the glove.
Last season, Choi put together another quality season at the dish. He slashed .233/.341/.388, leading to a .322 wOBA, and 115 wRC+. This marks the fifth straight season Choi has been an above-league-average hitter and the fourth time in five seasons he’s been at least 10% better than average. Choi drew walks at a 13.8% rate, which is slightly above his career average rate of 13.4%. However, he struck out nearly 30% of the time. His 29.4% K% is the worst single-season mark of his career.
Choi’s .154 isolated slugging percentage was also a career-worst but still slightly above the league average at .152. Choi had an ISO of .180 or greater in the four seasons prior to 2022, and the raw power is still there. He posted a 92.2 MPH exit velocity and 47.5% hard-hit rate, the ladder of which is a career-best. His launch angle was slightly down from prior seasons. This isn’t a Ke’Bryan Hayes situation as he still managed to post a 6.7% barrel rate (top 84th percentile). Choi projects to hit for more power, given he still had a .413 expected slugging percentage and .337 xwOBA.
Choi has never been a prime Gold Glove candidate, but he did pretty solid with the leather this season. Choi had -2 Defensive Runs Saved but a +2.8 UZR/150 and was in the top 77th percentile of outs above average with +2. That ranked seventh at his position. He’s been good enough at first for the Rays to play him in the field regularly.
Although it’s easy to draw the comparison to Daniel Vogelbach, Choi has a much longer history of success. Choi became a fixture in the Tampa Bay Ray lineup in 2018 and hasn’t changed since. Over the past five seasons, the Korean first baseman has a 120 wRC+, .783 OPS, and .338 wOBA. Vogelbach didn’t have nearly the same track record as Choi does. I think it’s reasonable to expect a .230/.340/.420 batter with 15+ home runs from Choi next season.
Choi brings power to a line-up that already has power hitters like Oneil Cruz, Jack Suwinski, Bryan Reynolds, and Rodolfo Castro. Choi has the potential to hit over 15 home runs, even in fewer than 500 plate appearances. He also provides an average glove at the position and should be better at the dish next season, given his underlying numbers paint a better picture.