Surprise Contributor - First Baseman Ji-Man Choi
The Pirates acquired Ji-Man Choi this past off-season to serve as a first base platoon partner with Carlos Santana. Choi has consistently been a solid batter. Last year, he slashed .233/.341/.388 with a .322 wOBA, and 116 wRC+. Choi is an on-base machine with a 13.8% walk rate and hit for about average power, coming to a .154 isolated slugging percentage.
Even though Choi was still 16% better than the league-average batter, it was a down year for his standard. The first baseman had a dismal second half with a sub-.300 wOBA (.256) and sub-70 wRC+ (69) after the All-Star break. Before the break, Choi had a .364 wOBA/145 wRC+.
Aside from a decent first half, what other reasons are there to believe Choi can rebound and be a surprise contributor? Choi played through the second half with an injury and received surgery to fix the issue. Despite his injury, Choi still showed off outstanding raw power, ranking in the top 93rd percentile of average exit velocity (92.2 MPH) and top 88th percentile of average hard-hit rate (47.5%).
However, the big reason is because of the new shift rules. Choi was shifted in about 84% of his plate appearances. When the shift was on, he had just a .304 wOBA. In the few plate appearances he had with no shift, he had a .405 wOBA. That's the difference between Paul Goldschmidt and Tommy Edman. It's the difference between an MVP-caliber hitter and a slightly below-league-average batter.
Now granted, that doesn't mean that I think Choi will go from a solid, above-average hitter to an MVP candidate. Teams are still finding ways to employ a shift. However, as we have seen in Spring Training, they haven't been nearly as extreme as in previous seasons, and it's led to higher batting averages on balls in play going for hits across the league compared to previous springs. Choi had a .337 xwOBA, but I think he could get to .350. I could see a situation where he posts something akin to 2021 Josh Donaldson or 2022 Adley Rutschman. They had a wRC+ between 125-133, batted around .250, and hit for plus power.