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Thoughts on Willie Calhoun

Willie Calhoun’s time with the Texas Rangers has, it appears, come to a close

Houston Astros v Texas Rangers Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

The Texas Rangers designated Willie Calhoun for assignment yesterday. The LF/DH, who had been optioned to Round Rock earlier this season, now must be waived or traded. While the Rangers can, theoretically, outright Calhoun to the minors if he clears waivers, Calhoun has the right to reject an outright assignment due to his having three-plus years of major league service time. Calhoun would almost certainly reject an outright assignment, which means that, one way or the other, by this coming Sunday, Calhoun will no longer be with the Texas Rangers.

It is a disappointing ending to Calhoun’s Rangers career. Acquired almost six years ago as the lead piece in the trade that sent Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline, Calhoun was seen as a guy with questions about where he would land defensively, but who would hit in the majors.

Well, the part about where he would land defensively was correct. A third baseman as a freshman at the University of Arizona, where he played as a freshman before transferring to Yavapai College for his sophomore year, Calhoun played almost exclusively second base after being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers, then played left field and DH once coming to the Rangers.

The hitting in the majors part, though?

That was the problem.

Over the course of six seasons with the Rangers, Calhoun slashed .241/.300/.407 in 927 plate appearances, good for an 85 wRC+. Even if he were a good defensive left fielder, that wouldn’t cut it. For a guy who famously responded, when asked his best position on the field, “I play three hole,” that sort of performance gets you designated for assignment.

There was an unusual amount of drama surrounding Calhoun throughout his Rangers career, as was detailed in our Year in Review piece on Calhoun after the 2021 season. He was injured twice from HBPs, and had other injuries that cost him time. There were times it seemed like his time with the Rangers was hexed.

But at the end of the day, Calhoun only had one extended stretch of time when he hit in the majors — in 2019, when he slashed .269/.323/.524 in 337 plate appearances. It was that performance that had him slated to be on the Opening Day roster in 2020, that meant, for the first time, he wouldn’t be fighting for a roster spot.

Then he was hit in the face by a pitch that broke his jaw and would have cost him the first half of the season if the pandemic hadn’t struck and taken the first half of the season away from everyone. He started the 2020 season on the injured list anyway due to a leg strain, and didn’t hit when he was healthy, slashing .190/.231/.260. Things weren’t much better in 2021, as he hit .250/.310/.381 while spending a good amount of time on the injured list. Despite speculation that he would be non-tendered this past winter, the Rangers kept him around, but an awful start to the 2022 season resulted in him being sent down to AAA. A .221/.267/.397 slash line resulted in the Rangers opting to move on when they needed to open up a 40 man roster spot for Steele Walker — another lefthanded hitting bat-first corner outfielder.

In retrospect, that 2019 performance was fool’s gold. His slugging percentage was fueled by 21 home runs in roughly a half-season’s worth of games played, but Calhoun isn’t a 40 home run per season hitter. His home run total was flukish, unsupported by the underlying batted ball metrics — his expected slugging, per Statcast, was .439 in 2019, much lower than his actual .524 slugging percentage. While he put up a wOBA of .351, his xwOBA was .323. In looking at his 2019 performance relative to the league, on balls that went for home runs, his xBA and xSLG was among the lowest in MLB among players that had double digit home runs.

In other words, the underlying metrics indicated he wasn’t going to keep having almost 20% of his fly balls go for home runs — he wasn’t hitting the ball in the air hard enough, and was getting lucky with having balls go just far enough to get out in 2019. That ended up coming to pass, as just 5.6% of his flyballs from 2020-22 ended up going for home runs.

As we talked about at length in the Year in Review, Calhoun’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t hit the ball hard — it is that, when he hits the ball hard, it is usually on the ground, while his fly balls generally have lesser exit velocity. One of the things that Chris Woodward talked about in regards to the decision to send Calhoun down was Calhoun was pulling too many hard hit ground balls, as the Rangers had been working with him to try to elevate the balls he can hit hard, rather than grounding them into a shifted defense that was likely to convert the ball into an out.

Willie, when he was sent down, indicated he had issues with the changes the Rangers wanted him to make. He said he was a line drive hitter, and that’s always what he has been, whereas the Rangers were trying to get him to elevate. He wasn’t that sort of big power hitter who would knock the ball over the fence — he was a line drive hitter, and that’s what he felt he needed to do to have success.

You can find plenty of stories of guys who had coaches telling them they needed to change what they’d always done, and who ignored the coaches and did things their own way and had success. You can also find plenty of stories of guys who had coaches telling them that they needed to change, and who made that change, and had success as a result. What coaches will tell you is one of the hardest parts of making changes is avoiding the natural urge to, when you are struggling, go back to what you’ve always done, what is comfortable.

The problem I see for Willie Calhoun is that the style of hitter he sees himself as, which he has always been, isn’t a style that is going to work in today’s game. A lefthanded line drive hitter who pulls the ball a lot, who isn’t fast and who doesn’t draw a ton of walks, is going to hit the ball into the shift a lot, is going to see a lot of hard hit balls turn into outs, and is going to find it extremely difficult to put up good offensive numbers. When you have no defensive position, when all of your value is tied up in your bat, the numbers you have to put up to justify a roster spot are that much higher, and that much harder to attain.

And so Willie Calhoun will move on to another organization. Another team will look at him as a change of scenery candidate, and see if he can get things going once he’s away from the Rangers. A team that thinks that shifting will be restricted in 2023 may want to make a bet on Calhoun seeing his numbers jump up when the second baseman isn’t playing in shallow right field and the shortstop isn’t positioned several steps on the first base side of second base.

But it didn’t work out here, which is unfortunate. Brendon Davis, who also came over in the Darvish trade, was selected by the Anaheim Angels in the 2021 minor league Rule 5 draft, had a breakout 2021 season, was added to the 40 man roster, and then was waived last month after a slow start at AAA, being claimed by the Detroit Tigers.

The lone player left from the Yu Darvish trade is A.J. Alexy, who made his major league debut in 2021, and is currently in the Round Rock rotation while it is determined whether long-term he fits as a starter or a reliever. Alexy is a nice player who has a chance to have a nice career, but the failure of Calhoun to pan out makes that deal look disappointing at this point.