The "five-tool player" tag gets thrown around like bubblegum wrappers in a bullpen. A ballplayer with the ability to hit for average and power, who possesses speed, an excellent glove and a howitzer of an arm is in reality as rare as the pitcher who can throw triple-digit fastballs with precision. "A-Rod used to be one," says Indians closer Chris Perez. "Cargo [Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez] is one. There may only be three or four real five-tool guys in the game, and Choo is definitely one."
According to the advanced metric Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which measures the number of victories a player contributes above or below an average player, during the last two seasons in the American League only Carl Crawford was a more valuable outfielder than Choo, who hit .300 in 2010 with a .401 on-base percentage, 22 home runs and 22 steals. (Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez is the only other player to hit .300 with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in each of the last two seasons.) Even when Choo is slumping at the plate, as he was to begin this season (through Sunday he was hitting .214 with two home runs, six RBIs and a .286 on-base percentage), Choo is a difference maker with his baserunning and defense. No one on the Indians has seen Choo pitch (despite having Tommy John surgery in 2007, he insists he can still hit 94 on the radar gun), but he showcases his arm almost every game. "It's not just how strong it is, it's also always on the money," says Perez. In the fourth game of the season Choo gunned down J.D. Drew at home plate in a 3--1 win over the Red Sox. "Boston didn't get the scouting report," says Perez. "You don't run on him."
Choo's swing is also gaining a reputation for being "one of the best, one of the prettiest, in the game," says Indians hitting coach Jon Nunnally. On his first day in camp this spring, outfielder Travis Buck, who signed as a free agent during the winter, was approaching the batting cages when he heard a gunshotlike noise—"the sound of a special ballplayer," says Indians team president Mark Shapiro. Buck looked into the cages and saw Choo taking cuts. He stood and watched Choo's swing—"no wasted motion, no loopiness, a direct, straight path downward to the ball, almost like chopping wood," says Buck. Afterward he walked up to Nunnally and said, "I want to hit exactly like that."
This spring Buck revamped his swing to model it after Choo's. "We always say, when someone's struggling, 'Just watch Choo,'" says catcher Lou Marson. "Just do what he does."
With a swing that Buck says creates "ridiculous backspin," Choo generates unexpected power from his compact build, which now carries 205 pounds. "If you watch him take batting practice and the rounds where he's really letting it lose, you see that he has as much raw power as anyone on our team," says Cleveland G.M. Chris Antonetti. As a minor leaguer in Tacoma, he was just the second player to hit a home run over the 29-foot centerfield wall, 425 feet from home plate, in Cheney Stadium. Last September, against the Royals, Choo hit three home runs in one game: the first to right center, the second (a grand slam) to left center and the third to right center. Says Nunnally, "He's going to hit 30-plus home runs, maybe more, one of these years."
Choo is powered by a work ethic that comes from his father, a former boxer and track athlete who always told him, "In sports, nobody cares about who finishes second." Says Shapiro, "Chris [Antonetti] and I stay on East Coast time during spring training [in Arizona], so we're in the weight room at 5 a.m., and he's the only player there, riding the bike before the full workout and the full spring training day."
Choo's daily routine includes hundreds of fingertip push-ups to strengthen his wrists and hands, dozens of swings off a tee, as well as a bowl of piping hot noodle soup, which he has after pregame BP sessions. Every night at home he takes 150 swings with a bat just before he goes to sleep. "I get home, I don't want to think about baseball. He gets home, and all he's thinking about is baseball," says his former teammate and roommate at Tacoma, Rich Dorman, now the pitching coach at Clinton. "He's not thinking about 20-20 anymore. He's not even thinking about 30-30. He wants 40-40. That's how driven he is."
Whether Choo would even be wearing an Indians uniform this season was somewhat in question after his breakout 2010 season. Men in Korea must serve two years of military service before their 30th birthday, and Choo was facing the possibility of having to return home to fulfill his obligation. Though the Indians always believed their best player would come back—as a last resort, he could have applied for U.S. citizenship—the issue weighed heavily on him. He knew there was only one dignified way out: Since the South Korean government typically grants military exemptions to athletes who win gold medals in international competitions, Choo could avoid service by leading his country to the title at the Asian Games in November.
Choo carried Korea to gold, hitting .571 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in the five-game tournament, which culminated with a 9--3 win over Taiwan in the championship game. His performance launched him to new heights of celebrity in his home country. When he returned to Korea this off-season, Choo appeared in a photo shoot with the nation's hottest singer, Son Dam-bi. He hung out with one of the country's biggest film stars, Sol Kyung-gu. "He's now bigger than [Olympic gold medalist figure skater] Kim Yu-na and [Manchester United star] Park Ji-sung," says the writer Park Kwang-min. "The Yankees were always the most popular team in Korea. Now you can't walk down the street without seeing someone in an Indians hat or shirt. The Indians are Number 1 in Korea."
Which means fans in Korea are happy these days: Cleveland, expected to finish near the bottom of the AL Central, won 11 of its first 15 games and was in first place through Sunday. Whether he homers or goes 0 for 4, Choo is the top story in Korean newspapers and on sports websites every day the Indians play. Although he is a national hero, others from Korea have not followed in his footsteps. Only one other Korean-born position player has appeared in the majors (first baseman Hee-Seop Choi, who played for the Cubs, Marlins and Dodgers from 2002 to '05), and Choo is the only active Korean-born player in the big leagues. "His success might create a slow trickle of players," says Heid. "But Choo still has a lot to prove. If he puts up the numbers for eight, 10 seasons, then we'll be talking about him making a big impact."