Choo staying calm in contract year

When new Reds center fielder Shin-Soo Choo arrived in Cincinnati at the start of the regular season, a book was waiting for him at Great American Ballpark. The text was written in Korean, Choo’s native language. A fan had sent it, he said.

It wasn’t a baseball book. It was about the games we play between our ears. Choo read about keeping a narrow focus, about thinking “simple things,” about accepting that he can’t please everyone.

“When you stop, you see everything,” Choo told me recently, in the cramped visitors’ clubhouse at Wrigley Field. “I really want to explain it to you, but it’s hard to say. I’ve already read it three times.”

Choo couldn’t recall the title, which only added to its mysticism. But if the Reds win the World Series, they should find the author and award him or her with a full playoff share. Choo’s agent, Scott Boras, may need to send a similar gift of gratitude.

When the Reds traded for Choo in December, they did so with the hope he would post big numbers in his contract year and possibly stick around Cincinnati for the long term. Already, he’s delivering on the first of those objectives. Choo, 30, is among the majors’ top 10 position players this year in OPS (1.023) and Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs.com.

Put another way, Choo has been arguably the best leadoff hitter in baseball this year and one of the majors’ elite players, period. If you like the more traditional metrics, he’s hitting .323 with seven home runs and 15 RBI with nearly one-quarter of the season gone.

The pressure of a contract year, it seems, has nothing on The Book.

“I wanted to play good before,” Choo explained. “Now, whatever happens on the field, I take it. Every pitch, I focus. In the outfield, same thing. Whatever happens, good or bad, I take it.

“Before, I’d think about (a lot) going to the batter’s box. I’d already recognize something happening — a hit, a home run. I’d already be thinking about after the game, about going 3-for-4 or 4-for-4. Now, I’m not thinking that way. It’s every pitch. I’m not thinking far away. Good things happen when I think that way.”

Apparently so.

Choo has done more this season than any other player to set himself up for a big free-agent contract. Robinson Cano is off to a strong start, of course, but he was going to get paid even if that hadn’t been the case. Chase Utley looks like an All-Star again, although his age and injury history make it unlikely he will get a superstar-level contract. Choo is a premier talent, still in his prime, who is flourishing at a new position in his first opportunity to play for a World Series contender.

Consider: Since 2008, Choo ranks third with a 137 OPS+ among major leaguers with at least 600 games played in the outfield, according to research through Baseball-Reference.com. The only players ahead of him are Ryan Braun and Matt Holliday, each of whom has a contract worth more than $100 million.

So, Choo is hitting free agency at an optimal time. He was coy when I asked what his priorities would be this winter, although he did say he enjoys having spring training in the Phoenix area — where he lives during the offseason. (The Reds are one of 15 teams that hold spring training in Arizona.)

“I’m not really thinking about where I’m going,” Choo said. “It’s more about every day, like I talked about earlier. I think about today. I think about my first at-bat. After that, my second at-bat.

“I hope I go to a good team, but I think that’s too far away. I know why Cincinnati (traded) two great players (Didi Gregorius and Drew Stubbs, in a three-team deal with Cleveland and Arizona) to bring me here: They want to win the World Series. That’s what I want, too. I’ve never played in the playoffs. I want to play in the playoffs and win the World Series. That’s it.”

Choo wasn’t always destined to be one of the most coveted players in his free-agent class. A highly touted prospect from Pusan, South Korea, Choo signed with the Seattle Mariners at 18 and performed consistently as he climbed through the farm system. But he was blocked by Seattle icon Ichiro Suzuki at his natural position — right field — and the Mariners dealt him to Cleveland in 2006.

Choo missed most of 2007 because of a left elbow injury that required surgery but emerged as a star with the Indians by hitting .300 or better in each of the next three seasons. Then came a dreadful 2011, during which he pleaded guilty to a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol and batted just .259 while spending much of the season’s second half on the disabled list.

Last year, though, Choo returned to form even as the Indians lost 94 games. Now he’s leading off for a potent lineup that features Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce in the third, fourth and fifth spots. Choo socked a walk-off home run Tuesday on a 96 mph fastball from frequently unhittable Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel.

How much of the success can be attributed to Choo’s favorite book? That’s hard to say. Choo did acknowledge his perspective has changed since his DUI. As he moved on from the embarrassment, he learned to put less pressure on himself.

“Before that happened, I wanted to make everyone happy,” Choo said. “I wanted everybody to like me, but that’s not (realistic). Now I’m not worried about it.

“I had a lot of stress at the ballpark, sometimes stress at home — a lot of things on my mind. How can I take care of everybody? How can I worry about everybody? If there are 24 hours in a day, fans maybe talk about me for a couple minutes. Why would I worry about those two minutes?”

It all makes sense to Choo now, even though it took him so long to let go. He had associated baseball with stress since he was a boy in South Korea.

“I don’t think I enjoyed baseball,” he said. “It felt like a job, like work.”

Today, he knows better. Alan, his 8-year-old son, is a baseball player, too. He bats left-handed, just like his dad. But Shin-Soo Choo doesn’t want to micromanage his son’s fun. He’s giving Alan the newest, best, simplest advice he knows:

“Just enjoy it.”