CLEVELAND -- Having already acknowledged the abstraction caused by his arrest, having already viewed the video of at-bats past and present, having already messed with mechanics and adjusted his approach, Indians right fielder Shin-Soo Choo is now at a point where the best he can make of his frustrating first half to the 2011 season is to use an amphibian analogy. Choo thinks of himself as a frog.
"You know a frog goes down, because he wants to go forward more?" Choo says. "I try to think like that." It's likely that herpetologists will find fault with Choo's understanding of the locomotor tendencies of this particular class of animal, but the basic gist of Choo's hypothesis is as follows: A frog might hop from place to place in short strides by merely pushing off its hind legs, but the frog that crouches low and then springs forward will find himself far from where he started. Choo hopes what's transpired the last three months will prove to be his low point before a sudden surge that eclipses anything he's done previously at the Major League level. So, yeah, in that regard, he likens himself to a frog. Where did he come up with such a thing? "My wife," he says with a smile. Choo's wife, Won Mi Ha, for the record, is no herpetologist, either, but Choo found her rather rudimentary assessment of his situation to be helpful. "I feel better," he says. "I feel a lot better." Just a few weeks back, what Choo needed was a psychologist, not a herpetologist. So serious was his stress over the embarrassment of a DUI arrest and the ensuing tidal wave of bad publicity the incident caused in his native South Korea that he found himself placing undue pressure on each at-bat. Choo was only batting .250 with a .716 OPS when he went out drinking in a west side suburb the night of May 1, but he had a .367 average and 1.057 OPS over his previous eight games and appeared to be finding the form that had caused people to call him one of the game's most underrated talents. Then, that night, he had a few -- or, judging by the report that he had a blood-alcohol content more than twice the legal limit, more than a few -- too many, tried to drive home and got caught. Little in Choo's world has been the same since. As his batting average plummeted in the wake of the arrest (Choo's average was at .221 by May 12), so, too, did his popularity back home. There were angry voices proclaiming that he ought to have his military exemption -- the one he earned last November by leading the South Korean team to a gold medal in baseball at the Asian Games tournament -- revoked. There were constant phone calls after each 0-for-4 performance from Korean reporters asking what went wrong. Choo is the first to admit he let the negative attention get the best of him. He read every word of just about every article written about him, both here and abroad. He answered every phone call from every inquisitive scribe. Above all else, he let his issues off the field compound his problems at the plate, and those problems received greater scrutiny as the Indians' once-cushy AL Central lead dwindled. "Choo's a very proud guy who cares a great deal," general manager Chris Antonetti says. "He works exceptionally hard and prepares to be successful. Because of how much he cares, it makes it difficult when he's struggling, especially when the team is struggling." It wasn't until a sitdown with Tribe manager Manny Acta early this month that Choo realized the err of his ways. Acta is the only Dominican-born manager in the Majors today, so he knows about the pressure of representing not just a team but a country, and the two had a heart-to-heart that Choo took to heart. His first order of business was to change the cell phone number he had carried with him for nearly a decade. His next was to learn to distance himself from any mention of his name online. When talking about his newfound frame of mind, Choo points to the iPad2 he recently bought. "I use it only for video games," he says. "No Internet. I'm not worried about things anymore. I learned a lot about life, actually, not just baseball. I used to try to make everybody happy. That's a lot of stress. In this world, you can't make everybody happy." Choo will make the Indians -- not to mention thousands of frustrated fantasy owners -- happy if he can conjure up the numbers that made him seem a burgeoning star in 2010. Last year, Choo hit an even .300 with a .401 on-base percentage, 22 homers, 31 doubles, 22 steals and 90 RBIs. This year? Choo is batting just .245 with five homers, 10 doubles, 11 steals and 28 RBIs. He has just 10 extra-base hits in his last 45 games, dating back to May 1. "From the time I started baseball when I was young," Choo says, "I was always better, better, better, every year. Even when I got to the Minor Leagues, better every year. And then I come to the big leagues, and still better every year. Never down." He's undoubtedly down this year, but Choo has enough season left to make his 2011 respectable. The Indians, clinging to life in first place after a hot start gone sour, believe he's got it in him, and they made the bold move of dismissing hitting coach Jon Nunnally last weekend as part of the effort to get the heart of their order back on track. Bruce Fields was promoted from within on an interim basis, and Choo is among his many tall orders. "I had a chance to talk to him when I first got in," Fields says. "He's starting to move past everything and starting to feel more comfortable. In talking with Choo, the mental side of not being focused each at-bat hurt him, and, mechanically speaking, his body was in the way, in terms of getting the barrel to the ball. When you're able to calm down and relax, things have a tendency to work better. I think he's getting to that stage now." Over his last eight games, Choo is batting .370 (10-for-27) with a double, a triple and five RBIs. It's a very small step that could, perhaps, be the beginning of that giant ... ahem ... frog-like leap forward. "He's had some good at-bats over the last week or so," Acta said, "and he's pulling the ball now with authority. He looks more relaxed to me. He's coming."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.