It has been a tough few weeks for the Tampa Bay Rays. Coming off a 12-14 June in which the offense floundered, it is virtually certain that they will not win the AL East, and their position in the Wild Card race is hanging in the balance. They did just battle back to win a rare 5-game series on the road in Toronto, but much work remains to be done to prove that they belong in the postseason.
Through the struggles, there have been two constant bright spots: one being the emergence of Isaac Paredes, and the other has been the steady presence of Ji-Man Choi at first base. Choi is putting together a great season, and in fact, he has been in the upper echelon of those at his position for a while.
Overall, the team was not able to muster much of anything offensively in June, but Choi slashed an impressive .310/.405/.479, walking in over 14% of plate appearances and driving in 15 of the 96 runs the team scored during the month. He's already carrying that success over into July, as he went 5 for 13 with a double and a home run in the series against the Blue Jays. These are some of the many layers of success he has had at the plate in 2022.
As a left-handed batter, Choi is most likely never going to qualify to be a Major League leader for any rate-based stats, since the Rays usually keep him on the bench when a left-handed pitcher is starting for the opponent. That still means he gets to suit up in the majority of Rays games, and this season, he is playing some of the best baseball of his career. In 2022, Choi has a wRC+ of 156, which is third among all first basemen with at least 200 plate appearances, behind only Paul Goldschmidt and Ty France, who are having amazing seasons in their own right.
This elite level of production is no fluke either. Per Statcast, Choi is in the 80th percentile of MLB hitters in hard-hit rate, 78th percentile in barrel rate, and a stellar 95th percentile in chase rate. Choi's plate discipline has been something to watch this season; the only first basemen in MLB who is walking at a higher rate is Carlos Santana, who is a legend in that department.
Choi has been doing it for longer than just this season as well. Over a 3-year scale dating back to the start of the 2019 season, Choi has wRC+ of 125, which ties him for 11th place among first basemen. On that list, he ranks ahead of players such as Rhys Hoskins, Max Muncy, Jared Walsh, and Miguel Sano, and he's just below established names like Anthony Rizzo and Josh Bell. In that timespan, Choi never had a single-season wRC+ lower than 105, and that was in the shortened 2020 campaign. He's consistently well above league-average as a hitter, and it's comforting for Rays fans that at his worst, he's still well in the clear of mediocrity.
He's hitting better than he ever has, which makes this a good time to reflect upon and appreciate the fact that Ji-Man Choi has been a more productive hitter than a whole group of players at his position that get more mainstream credit than himself. He has some of the best discipline in the game when he's at the plate, and he's a perfect example of how the Rays can manage someone's playing time to get the best out of them. The result of their reclamation project with Choi has been the emergence of one of the better first basemen in MLB when he's in the lineup.