Since the moment that he began to see regular playing time, Kole Calhoun has been one of the Angels’ most reliable players. He hits well, he fields well, he won’t be a burden on the bases, and the team can count on him to produce every single day. Or, at least, that’s the way it was before this year.
Calhoun made his major-league debut in 2012, but he became a significant part of the Angels’ future plans the following year, when he hit .282/.347/.462 (127 wRC+, where 100 is average) with eight home runs in 58 games.
In 2014, he became an everyday player for the first time in his career, batting leadoff for a 98-win Angels team that possessed a league-leading offense. He produced similar numbers as the previous year, but in a much larger sample size, batting .272/.325/.450 (124 wRC+) with 17 homers in 127 games.
Over the next couple of seasons, Calhoun proved to be an invaluable asset for the Angels, establishing himself as one of baseball’s best right fielders. From 2014-2016, Calhoun hit .266/.327/.436 (114 wRC+), averaging about 20 home runs per season and, because his steady offense was joined by solid baserunning and superb defense, 3.3 Wins Above Replacement.
Calhoun was a borderline All-Star caliber player for three consecutive seasons. But then he took a step back in 2017 and was a below average hitter for the first time since his brief big-league stint in 2012. He batted .244/.333/.392 (98 wRC+) with 19 home runs, and his 2.2 WAR was barely better than the average everyday player.
His 2017 campaign was a disappointing and uncharacteristic one for a player who had been one of the game’s 20 best outfielders for three years, but a return to form in 2018 would not have been unforeseen. And his 2018 has been unforeseen–but for an entirely different reason.
Through 185 plate appearances this year, Calhoun has three extra-base hits. He’s drawing a walk about half as often as last year. He’s striking out at the second-highest rate of his career. He’s hitting the ball on the ground more than ever. That has all added up to an incomprehensible .145/.195/.179 (3 wRC+) line and -1.1 WAR.
That 3 wRC+ means that Calhoun’s offensive production (when adjusted for ballpark factors) has been 97% worse than the league-average hitter, and no other hitter has been particularly close to as fallible as Calhoun has been this year. Going back to 1920, only six other players have amassed 180 or more plate appearances in a season and posted a 3 or lower wRC+ mark. And this is after Calhoun enjoyed a 111 wRC+ over the previous four seasons, meaning that his offensive output was 11% better than the league-average hitter during that time.
It’s simply perplexing to see such a good hitter struggle like this, and one can’t help but wonder why this is happening.
A Swing Change?
Throughout his career, Calhoun has crushed fastballs. This year, however, he has been extremely vulnerable to the pitch. Here are his wRC+ marks against fastballs since 2013:
Prior to this year, Calhoun consistently produced offense against the pitch that was around 50% better than average. This year, he’s produced a wRC+ number against fastballs so low that it doesn’t even make any sense.
A possible explanation for this is the leg kick that he introduced. In 2017, he employed a simple toe-tap timing mechanism. In this year’s Spring Training, though, he replaced it with a big leg kick that, because it takes longer for him to get his foot down, could have potentially led to him being late on fastballs and thus unable to hit them consistently. This theory does not really hold up, however, because he has not used the leg kick for the entirety of the season.
For example, here’s Calhoun lining a single up the middle in the first series of the season:
And here he is about a week later–when he was hitting .184/.205/.316–with something resembling his 2017 swing:
And about a month ago, Calhoun was back to the leg kick:
Furthermore, Calhoun’s problem is not that he is getting blown away by fastballs all of a sudden; his swinging strike rate against them is the same as it was last year and lower than it was in 2015 and 2016. A look at his expected outcomes, which estimate the results that a player deserves based on the quality of their contact, shows that he is also making good contact on fastballs.
Here is his batting average, expected batting average, slugging percentage, and expected slugging percentage against fastballs since 2015:
His expected batting average and slugging percentage against fastballs are both lower than last year, but they are not too far off of his actual results in 2017, meaning that Calhoun is not hitting fastballs significantly worse than last year; he’s just not seeing the same results.
Calhoun has consistently underperformed his expected outcomes, which makes sense because he hits the ball into the shift quite often, resulting in countless would-be hits becoming outs. Still, Calhoun has never experienced this big of a discrepancy and has deserved much better results against fastballs than he has received this year, so they are not his biggest issue.
The addition (and subtraction) of the leg kick does not seem to be the source of the problem. Rather, it seems to be an attempt to remedy his problem, and the fact that he introduced the leg kick, abandoned it, and went back to it suggests that Calhoun and the Angels’ coaching staff have yet to fully diagnose his issues at the plate–and with his swing, specifically–and have just tinkered with his timing mechanisms in a desperate attempt to find answers, especially considering that that is the only noticeable change that has been made. There almost has to be something wrong with his swing, but that’s (probably) not it.
So, What’s Happening?
To expand on the contact-quality point, overall, Calhoun is still hitting the ball hard, despite the historically poor production. His hard-hit rate is better than last year and nearly identical to his 2016 mark. His average exit velocity is in line with his career level, and 35.1% of his batted balls have been hit 95 mph or harder, the same amount as last season. Additionally, Calhoun’s plate-discipline numbers, like swing rate and chase rate, have remained in line with his career norms.
However, he has suffered from a .185 batting average on balls in play, the lowest in the majors and over 100 points lower than his career BABIP. This does not mean that Calhoun’s season can be purely chalked up to luck. Surely there is some amount of bad luck involved, but this also has a lot to do with something that Calhoun is doing.
As mentioned earlier, Calhoun is hitting more ground balls than he ever has; his 55.7% ground-ball rate is the sixth-highest in the majors and about 12% higher than it was in 2017. Calhoun also pulls the ball a lot (42.7% of the time), and pulled ground balls are just about the worst batted-ball type for a left-handed hitter, with lefties hitting .169 on such balls this year.
This is due mostly to the shift, which is designed to eat up grounders to the right side, no matter how hard they’re hit. While Calhoun has always been shifted against, teams are doing so even more this year.
In 2015, Calhoun faced the shift in 23% of his plate appearances. That number went up to 39.9% the next year and 44.7% the year after. In 2018, Calhoun is facing the shift in 69.7% of his plate appearances. That, combined with the increase in grounders, explains the low BABIP better than bad luck.
And while Calhoun is hitting fastballs on the ground more than he has in the past, breaking balls and off-speed pitches have really plagued him in this area. His ground-ball rate against off-speed pitches has more than doubled since 2016, up from 39.1% to an unbelievably high 81%. Against breaking balls, that number is up from 42.6% last year to 59.1% in 2018. Accordingly, Calhoun is hitting .122 against breaking balls and .071 against off-speed pitches with zero extra-base hits against either, which are about the results that he has deserved.
By Statcast’s xwOBA metric, Calhoun has been the seventh-unluckiest hitter in the majors. But, again, much of that can be explained by Calhoun’s propensity to hit ground balls and his opponents’ tendency to deploy shifts against him. Of course, it is not impossible for a left-handed hitter to find success by hitting a ton of ground balls.
Dee Gordon, for instance, hits over 50% grounders, but his elite speed makes that approach optimal for him. There’s also Eric Hosmer, who is one of only five players with a higher ground-ball rate than Calhoun this season. While he’s not fast, Hosmer gets away with it by hitting the ball to the opposite field, something that Calhoun has not demonstrated an ability to do.
Calhoun is probably not going to figure out how to run like Gordon (You never know…). He could learn to hit the ball the other way like Hosmer, but that has never been Calhoun’s game. He is at his best when he’s pulling the ball, in the air.
That’s why Kole Calhoun doesn’t need to reinvent himself. He just needs to rediscover himself.
Featured image via Keith Allison/Flickr.