MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Clear mind has Choo fueling Rangers' rise

Outfielder enjoying return to vintage form year after temporary dip in performance

Clear mind has Choo fueling Rangers' rise

Don't bother looking at Shin-Soo Choo's numbers. They don't seem real. OK, maybe video-game real.

Real world? Forget about it.

For instance, he stepped to home plate in the bottom of the first inning on Tuesday with his Texas Rangers trailing, 2-0.

One pitch later -- yes, one pitch -- he launched a home run to right field to make it a 2-2 game.

Wait, there's more.

With the Tigers and Rangers tied at 6 in the bottom of the fourth inning, he drilled a two-out double to left and trotted home moments later when Adrian Beltre doubled.

The Rangers would win this one, 7-6, to increase their lead atop the American League West and close in on their fourth postseason appearance in six years.

For the last two months, Texas has been one of the best two or three teams in baseball, winning 38 of 58 to make something of a season that seemed to be going nowhere.

The Rangers are winning for a long list of reasons, few of them more important than Choo's production from the No. 2 spot in the batting order.

At a time when the American League Most Valuable Player debate has focused on Josh Donaldson and Mike Trout, Choo's accomplishments have flown under the radar.

Take a deep breath. They're otherworldly good. He's hitting .349 with a .463 on-base average since returning to the lineup on July 18. In that time, only Joey Votto (.556) and Bryce Harper (.466) have higher OBPs.

And this month, when an entire season seems to be riding on every pitch for the Rangers, Choo has played the best baseball of his life.

His .524 OBP in September is the best in baseball, with Votto (.509) and Harper (.500) second and third, respectively.

This is the player the Texas Rangers thought they were getting. This is the player Shin-Soo Choo had been for the previous five seasons.

He's an absolute on-base machine, spraying balls to all fields, forcing nothing. With rookie leadoff man Delino DeShields Jr. in front of Choo and veterans Beltre and Prince Fielder behind him, the Rangers have increased their offense from 4.4 runs per game during the first five months to 5.4 in September.

And a team that was eight games out of first place in early August is nicely positioned to win a division title.

The Rangers say a different mindset changed everything for Choo.

"It looks like he took a deep breath and went out and played his game," general manager Jon Daniels said, "and his game is pretty good."

Choo says it in a slightly different way.

"Since the All-Star break, I feel more like the way I'm playing has an impact," Choo said.

That it took so long for Choo to reach a comfort level is the only unexpected part of this story.

He'd played in 853 Major League games by the time he slipped into a Rangers uniform for the first time in the spring of 2014 after signing a seven-year, $130 million contract in free agency.

He was 31 years old and had spent time with three organizations -- Mariners, Indians and Reds. He'd been traded twice and spent the better part of eight seasons in the Minors.

In other words, he'd been around the block a time or two. If any player could make the adjustment to a new team, it figured to be Choo.

In his five previous seasons (2009-13), Choo's .392 OBP was the fifth-highest mark in baseball, behind only Votto (.431), Miguel Cabrera (.419), Joe Mauer (.410) and Fielder (.400).

When Choo got to Texas, there were no questions about what kind of player the Rangers were getting. But changing teams can be difficult, especially after signing for big money.

Suddenly, like a long list of players through the years, Choo seemed to feel the pressure to justify that contract when all his new team wanted was for him to be the player he'd been.

Choo struggled, mightily. His .242 batting average in 2014 was 40 points below his career average.

When Choo batted .096 in the opening month of this season and was hovering at .221 at the All-Star break, plenty of Rangers fans thought Daniels had blown it.

That's when something remarkable happened, something that has turned around both Choo's career and maybe the Rangers' season.

During a conversation with his wife, Won Mi Ha, Choo said that something clicked in his mind.

"She is telling me that I've built a very strong building," Choo told reporters. "Like everyone, it's going to get shaken, but it is built on a solid foundation and that I shouldn't try to change that. It will stand up sturdy."

Choo said the chat "cleared my mind," that he was able to relax and simply be the player he'd always been. He once joked that he was a five-tool player, but that four of the tools were "mediocre."

Choo is way better than that, but at a low point -- he and the Rangers were both struggling -- he was able to return to the basics of what he'd always been.

"What I have to do is just be me," he said.

The Rangers are loving the show. As manager Jeff Banister said, "It's fun to watch and a joy to be around."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.