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A closer look at Kole Calhoun’s offensive struggles

He has been able to stay in the lineup thanks to his outstanding glove, but has struggled mightily at the plate this season.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim  v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Kole Calhoun was supposed to be a solid contributor to a revamped Angels offense, not the player who’s lineup inclusion is justified only by his exceptional defense in right field. With six defensive runs saved, six outfield assists, and game saving highlight plays like this...

Gif via

...and this:

Gif via

Calhoun’s defense is having a palpable effect on the Angels’ season. Unfortunately, so is his 9 wRC+, a jarring number that puts him last in baseball among qualified hitters this season, with the second worst mark of 30 wRC+ belonging to Ian Desmond. Calhoun’s been the worst offensive regular in baseball by a wide margin. Emma Baccellieri did the heavy contextual lifting about Calhoun’s first two months for us in her piece about Calhoun for SI:

“Relative to the rest of the league’s performance, it’s the worst March-April from an everyday player since Greg Vaughn hit .099/.192/.110 in 2002; in the last half-century, only three other players have had similarly poor starts.”

The differences in Kole Calhoun’s offensive profile are easily identifiable with a quick stroll around his FanGraphs page. He’s swinging more, especially at pitches out of the zone, and making less contact, especially at pitches in the zone. A combination that — I’m sure I didn’t need to tell you, dear reader — is bad.

Along with the highest swinging strike rate of his career, Calhoun is also posting a ground-ball rate of 56.4 percent, up 12.5 percentage points from his previous season high mark. He’s making less contact, and the quality of contact he is making is not ideal.

Pitcher’s aren’t attacking Calhoun in a drastically different way. He’s seeing fewer curveballs more sliders, and more fastballs, but none of those changes are more than three percentage points in either direction. The most dramatic shift in Calhoun’s production has come against four-seam fastballs. Since 2013, Calhoun’s first full major league season, he has never posted a wOBA below .360 or a wRC+ below 140 against four-seamers. This year? His wOBA against the offering is .147 and his wRC+ is -3.

Unlike his overall profile, Calhoun has not seen a drastic reduction in contact against fastballs, but his swing rate on four-seamers outside of the zone has risen 9.6 percentage points. A look at his heat map of swings and misses against the pitch paint a staggering picture.

Heat Maps via Baseball Savant

Calhoun has always been susceptible to the high four-seam fastball away, but this season he’s getting beat by the pitch at the top of the zone regardless of it’s horizontal location. He’s even started to chase the lower fastballs inside. In the past few years the league has begun to understand the benefits of throwing a high-fastball and many teams are agressive in implementing it as a strategy. Calhoun has become a victim of this approach as he isn’t just whiffing at the elevated four-seamers away anymore, he’s become an equal opportunity high-fastball chaser.

These things certainly can happen in a vacuum as a player gets older and loses a step. But while Calhoun is now 30 years old, it doesn’t feel like an offensive drop-off this staggering is due to a simple age related decline. There are identifiable mechanical changes to Calhoun’s swing in 2018, mainly a new leg kick, which is a possible culprit if we‘re looking to find something to blame for his struggles. Here’s a side-by-side look at some key points in Calhoun’s swing both last season and this season:

Gif via

First, a couple of disclaimers: I am not a coach or swing expert, and do not claim any mastery of the mechanics of hitting. Also, these are two random at-bats from MLB dot com’s highlights and are merely meant as example of what has changed. I have not controlled for pitch type or speed, and obviously the opposing pitcher is different. All of those things matter, but we’re not picking nits here; this is meant as an overarching look at Calhoun’s swing changes.

As I said earlier, the headline is that Calhoun added a leg kick in 2018, where he had previously barely even lifted his front foot off of the ground. He was more upright in his setup last season, but the setup is more of a way for a hitter to activate a swing rather than an impactful part of how a ball is struck. In my estimation, the key difference in the above comparison is in the fourth still frame. At that point, Calhoun’s hips have already rotated in 2017, but are lagging behind in 2018. It would stand to reason that the delayed weight transfer and hip rotation would be an impediment to handling pitches on the inside part of the plate and would help explain his increased struggles with inside fastballs.

Again, coming to conclusions based on comparing a couple of at-bats is hardly definitive, and it’s certainly possible that there’s a bit of confirmation bias in analyzing his swing having already seen that Calhoun’s getting beat more often on fastballs inside this season. But there’s still much to be learned in the comparison, even with the numerous qualifiers that I mentioned, and it’s indisputable that the change has not worked.

The bottom line is that Kole Calhoun changed his swing in 2018, and has subsequently been the worst offensive regular in baseball. His glove has kept him in the lineup and will for the foreseeable future, but sooner or later he’s going to have to turn it around at the plate for a playoff contender to justify his continued playing time. It might be as simple as going back to the basics of what has worked in the past. The grass is not always greener on the other side.

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.