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On Willie Calhoun and pulled ground balls

Willie Calhoun has been sent down, and too many pulled ground balls was listed as a reason

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Houston Astros v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

So, Willie Calhoun.

As everyone knows by now, Willie Calhoun was optioned to AAA Round Rock on Sunday. The Rangers had to drop down to a 26 man roster as of May 2, and Calhoun was one of the two players sent down to make that happen.

The move was not without some controversy, with folks (not unreasonably) asking with Zach Reks stayed up while Calhoun was sent down. Kole Calhoun, the veteran right fielder who was signed this offseason to shore up the outfield, has been performing even worse than Willie Calhoun, prompting questions as to why the Rangers didn’t simply cut Kole, though of course Willie Calhoun being able to be optioned pretty much answers that question.

Willie himself helped shed some light on the situation a few hours after the announcement was made, offering up his thoughts to Levi Weaver of the Athletic, saying that he has wanted out of Texas for the last year to year-and-a-half, and taking issue with some of the “hitting philosophies from the new guys,” referring to the new hitting coaches the Rangers have brought in. He lamented that he had always been a line drive hitter in his career, and the Rangers have wanted him to hit for power.

When talking to the media about the decision, Chris Woodward talked about Calhoun hitting too many ground balls to the right side. There was a certain amount of derision expressed in response to that comment, a sense that such a specific criticism was misplaced, and that it was perhaps just a cover for whatever the real reason was.

Let’s look at the entire Woodward quote, as reported in the DMN:

“He’s definitely been a bit unlucky, but there have also been some recurrences of hard ground balls to the right side,” Woodward said. “The hard ground balls to the right side, that’s something we’ve tried to get away from. No more. It just doesn’t play in this game. Those are things we’re trying to avoid and things we are trying to work through.”

The issue of ground balls and Willie Calhoun isn’t exactly new. We talked about it in the Year in Review for Calhoun after the 2021 season — Calhoun had one of the highest exit velocities in the league on ground balls, but one of the lowest on fly balls, which is a problematic mixture. Evan Grant notes that that trend has continued for Calhoun so far in 2022, as well as observing that over the last three seasons Calhoun’s batting average on fly balls is the lowest among the 375 players with at least 100 instances during that time.

But Chris Woodward mentioning pull side ground balls in particular was interesting to me. I decided to go onto Statcast and take a look at what is going on.

Let’s look at ground balls as a whole, by year:

Year BA xBA wOBA xwOBA
2017 .249 .237 .226 .219
2018 .246 .233 .225 .221
2019 .242 .236 .219 .222
2020 .238 .242 .218 .228
2021 .241 .242 .221 .228
2022 .230 .255 .216 .234

Let’s now compare that to pull side ground balls, by year:

Year BA xBA wOBA xwOBA
2017 .226 .247 .212 .228
2018 .216 .234 .204 .223
2019 .204 .239 .190 .225
2020 .187 .242 .177 .228
2021 .193 .243 .183 .228
2022 .178 .254 .174 .234

So this is interesting...what we see, over the past several years, is xBA and wxOBA remaining steady, while actual BA and actual wOBA decline. That may seem counter-intuitive, but remember, xStats take exit velocity and launch angle into account when determining expected outcome, not the direction in the field it goes.

What if we look at just pulled ground balls from lefthanded hitters?

Year BA xBA wOBA xwOBA
2017 .189 .247 .176 .228
2018 .177 .233 .167 .222
2019 .165 .237 .154 .223
2020 .150 .244 .142 .230
2021 .156 .245 .148 .230
2022 .148 .247 .146 .227

We see results even more dramatic. How about hard hit pulled ground balls? Here’s the data on pulled ground balls by lefthanded hitters with an exit velocity over 90 mph:

Year BA xBA wOBA xwOBA
2018 .300 .377 .284 .354
2019 .278 .379 .259 .355
2020 .244 .347 .232 .324
2021 .244 .346 .233 .321
2022 .226 .367 .226 .338

A lefthanded hitter who pulls a ground ball is not having success in today’s game.

The data for ground balls that fall in the “straightaway” category is not all that interesting — pretty consistent with overall groundball results. But here’s what we see when we look at lefties hitting ground balls the other way:

Year BA xBA wOBA xwOBA
2018 .449 .223 .410 .211
2019 .473 .228 .428 .215
2020 .438 .231 .400 .217
2021 .486 .235 .450 .221
2022 .475 .247 .448 .227

As a general rule, hitters are going to pull ground balls much more often than they are going to hit ground balls the other way — that’s the whole reason we see the extreme infield shifts (and if the shift is banned, Willie would seem to be one of the hitters who benefits).

As a point of reference, since the 2020 season, Willie Calhoun has pulled 68 ground balls, versus just 17 opposite field ground balls.

Looking at all the data, what Chris Woodward is saying makes sense. Calhoun’s problem the last few years is that when he has hit the ball hard, it has most often been pulled on the ground. Lefthanded hitters who are pulling ground balls are making a ton of outs — more than would be reflected in their expected stats. And his fly balls have not been hit hard enough to do damage.

What it sounds like the Rangers have been trying to get Calhoun to do is to make adjustments in order to get the balls he can drive in the air. And in reading Calhoun’s quotes, it sounds like he hasn’t bought in on that — he mentions pulled ground balls being “in his DNA,” and saying he’s a line drive hitter, not a home run hitter.

The problem is that Willie Calhoun is a lefthanded hitting DH. If he’s not going to hit home runs, he’s going to have to draw walks and hit for a high average to have value. But Calhoun’s batted ball profile isn’t one that is going to be expected to generate those sorts of results. If he isn’t going to make changes to hit the ball in the air with authority more often, it seems unlikely he’s going to hit enough to be a viable major leaguer.