With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at outfielder/DH Willie Calhoun.
If there were any justice in this version of the multiverse, Willie Calhoun would be coming off his third straight solid season in the Rangers’ lineup.
If we flash back to spring, 2018, a lot of folks assumed that Willie Calhoun would be the Rangers’ regular left fielder. He had just been acquired as the lead piece in the Yu Darvish trade in 2017, had gotten his feet wet that September (albeit by necessity — Jon Daniels had said Calhoun wouldn’t be called up, but then injuries meant that the team needed bodies), and there was a big gaping hole in the lineup where a left fielder belonged. Calhoun was new to the position — he was primarily a second before the Rangers acquired him — and really, his best position was probably DH, but hey, its left field, and it isn’t like there were any better options.
Calhoun had a disappointing camp, however, with reports coming out that his defense and his baserunning were not major league caliber, and he ended up getting optioned to AAA. Being sent down resulted in howls of protest or cheers of praise — depending on who was making the noise — that the Rangers were flagrantly manipulating Calhoun’s service time, and were sending down a player who should be in the majors just to gain an extra year of team control. What other explanation could there be, given that the alternative the Rangers chose to roll with was a three-headed monster of Ryan Rua, Drew Robinson and Jurickson Profar? It was predicted that Calhoun would be up by the end of April, when an extra year of service time was guaranteed.
As it turned out, those who said Calhoun wasn’t major league ready had their positions justified, as Calhoun struggled at AAA for much of the season. Calhoun ended up getting called up in late July, didn’t hit (.222/.269/.333), didn’t field well, and ended the year with a -0.7 bWAR in 108 plate appearances.
When 2019 rolled around it was a different story, however. Calhoun showed up in camp in better shape. His defense had improved. He had taken what the coaches told him he needed to work on to heart. His spring numbers weren’t good on the surface, but Chris Woodward and the coaches said that the metrics they used to evaluate at bats indicated Calhoun was doing just fine at the plate. Willie Calhoun had done everything he needed to do to win a job.
Just one problem. Early in 2018, after the failure of the Rua/Robinson/Profar triumvirate, Joey Gallo was moved from first base to left field. And Gallo played the position quite well! So Gallo was entrenched in left field. Nomar Mazara was in right field. Shin-Soo Choo was at DH. The COF and DH spots were spoken for.
And all those players, as well as Ronald Guzman, who was starting the year at first base, were left handed. If Calhoun was to make the team in 2019, it would have to be as a bench bat...but given Calhoun was also a lefthanded hitters, and one that was limited defensively to left field (and DH, of course), he had little utility off the bench.
So late in spring training, 2019, Calhoun was informed that he would be starting the season in the minors.
Calhoun, you will recall, was upset. He left the complex. There was some mild mystery and drama over him for the next 24 to 48 hours.
Then Calhoun returned, said he’d go to AAA, work hard, do what he needed to do, and would be ready when his opportunity came.
And that’s exactly what happened. He came up briefly in a fill in role in mid-May for a week, mashed, then was sent back down. He came back up for good in mid-June, and performed acceptably. He wasn’t great, but he slashed .269/.323/.524 for the year in 337 plate appearances, and while his defense dragged his bWAR down to 0.6 on the year, an 848 OPS from your 24 year old LF/DH is something you’re going to find acceptable.
Then 2020. A lost year. Not because — or just because — of COVID, either. Calhoun, coming into spring training for the first time with a job, without having to worry about trying to make the team, was hit square in the face by a pitch in one of the final spring training games before the pandemic shut things down. He had a broken jaw which would have cost him several months but for the delay in the season starting.
Even once the season started in late July, however, Willie never got it going. Whether due to carryover from the hit by pitch, rustiness, a slump, or just not physically being right, Willie didn’t hit once he got back on the field. Then he missed almost a month due to another injury, coming back for the final two weeks and still not hitting well. He finished the season with a .190/.231/.260 slash line.
Fast forward to 2021. Calhoun had a starting job. He had the awful 2020 season behind him.
And he still didn’t hit. Not enough, anyway. Heading into Game 77 of the season on June 26, 2021, Willie was slashing just .254/.320/.385. Even with the new park being more pitcher friendly than the old park, that wasn’t going to cut it for a bat-first (or bat-only) guy.
On June 26, leading off the top of the 2nd inning, Calhoun was hit on the arm by a Kris Bubic pitch. He stayed in the game and ended up scoring on a Jose Trevino double, part of a three run inning where the Rangers batted around.
But when his spot was due up in the top of the third, Andy Ibanez pinch hit for him. He went for X-rays. And then the news came in...a fractured forearm. For the second year in a row, a hit by pitch put him on the shelf for a lengthy period of time.
Calhoun did make it back to the field, did return to the majors in mid-September, but the rust showed. He didn’t hit for power or average over that final few weeks, and ended the year with a .250/.310/.381 slash line.
And Willie Calhoun now finds himself at a crossroads. He turned 27 yesterday. He’s in what should be the prime of his career. He’s arbitration eligible for the first time. And he’s a left fielder/DH who has a career .247/.301/.414 slash line, who, other than for a few months in 2019, hasn’t shown he can hit major league pitching. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances the last couple of years. Yes, his batted ball metrics in 2021 were better than the surface numbers, as he had a .322 xwOBA, 21 points better than his .301 wOBA. But Willie Calhoun is at a point where he’s running out of opportunities.
Heading into 2022, Willie Calhoun is not guaranteed a spot in the Rangers’ lineup. Hell, he’s not guaranteed a spot on the 40 man roster — he’s been talked about as someone who could be waived, traded or non-tendered so that the Rangers can clear a 40 man roster spot for someone else. At this point he’s no longer even the most exciting piece from the Yu Darvish trade — he’s been supplanted by righthanded pitcher A.J. Alexy, who had a strong 2021 campaign and earned a cup of coffee in the majors.
In one of those instances of synchronicity, one of those coincidences that makes me thing maybe Carl Jung was on to something, a Twitter thread by Max Dutto showed up in my Twitter timeline this morning, when I was already about halfway through this post. Dutto is, per his Twitter bio, Assistant Director of Hitting for Driveline, and his thread starts out with this tweet:
Attack angle can be that missing piece for hitters who have the hit tool but haven't had that breakout year— Max Dutto (@MaxDutto_) November 4, 2021
Let's look at an MLB hitter who fits this mold well and could make that jump with a swing plane adjustment
But first, a quick attack angle refresher pic.twitter.com/f2lcfz56rK
I don’t follow Dutto so I only saw this because it was RT’d into my timeline. But even then, I wouldn’t have likely paid any attention but for the fact that Trip Somers, who RT’d it, noted that the MLB hitter Dutto talks about is Willie Calhoun.
You can read the entire thread here, and Dutto goes into great detail, using video and data. The upshot of it is that Dutto calls Calhoun “a really interesting hitter because of his bat to ball skills, improving swing decisions, and around league average bat speed,” but who hits too many of his hard hit balls on the ground. And then he goes through what adjustments Calhoun would need to make to be able to “start elevating more of his hard-hit balls.”
Curious about this, I went to Statcast. I looked at every hitter with at least 50 plate appearances that ended in ground balls in 2021, and sorted them by average exit velocity.
There were 377 such hitters in 2021. Willie Calhoun’s average exit velocity on ground balls was 91.9 mph — tied with Evan Longoria with fourth highest among those 377 hitters, behind Vlad Jr., Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.
I then did the same search and sort with fly balls. Willie Calhoun’s average exit velocity on fly balls was 89.5 mph — 238th out of 271 hitters, surrounded by guys like Odubel Herrera and Phil Gosselin and Tucker Barnhart.
Line drives? Calhoun’s average exit velocity was 94.7 mph, which was 102nd out of 241 hitters.
If you just look at average exit velocity, Calhoun looks fine — 90.1 mph exit velocity, 72nd out of 258 batters with at least 200 plate appearances last year. His launch angle is also fine — he’s 86th per Statcast, at 15 degrees, part of a chunk of guys who are between 73rd and 98th in launch angle. His 39.6% ground ball rate is lower than the 42.9% ground ball rate for the majors as a whole. If you look at it in aggregate, you’d say, he’s hitting the ball hard, and in the air, and with a good launch angle — he’s not Nomar Mazara, for example.
But as Dutto notes, he’s hitting the ball hard on the ground and softly in the air. And that’s a recipe for a lot of GIDPs and 4-3s and an underwhelming offensive line.