Although it took a Joey Gallo injury to get him consistent playing time, Willie Calhoun made positive strides at the plate in 2019. The former top prospect who headlined the 2017 Yu Darvish trade, Calhoun has been a bit of a tease to this point in his career. The Rangers didn’t seem too excited to call their top prospect up and give him steady playing time. He only had 145 major league plate appearances combined in 2017 and 2018, in which he didn’t fare particularly well. Those small samples offered wRC+ marks of just 75 and 53 in 2017 and 2018 respectively, which is definitely disappointing because his bat should be what makes him worthy of a lineup spot. He is likely long for a designated hitter spot, evidenced by his poor defensive metrics in that short time frame.
Despite those weaknesses and lack of playing time in the past, when Calhoun got steady playing time in 2019 he made the most of it with a .269/.323/.524 line with 21 home runs, 48 RBI, and a 110 wRC+ in about half a season’s worth of at-bats. As it stands now and barring an acquisition of, say, Nicholas Castellanos, Calhoun should finally be locked into a spot in the starting lineup, so let’s talk a little bit about him.
Should we just double his production from a season ago and move on? That would look nice, as it would be close to 40 home runs and close to 90 RBI and runs scored, and he would be a pretty nice bargain for fantasy baseball purposes. It’s not that simple of course. With that type of possible output, he deserves a closer look. In terms of his batting profile, there are things that I really like about Calhoun, but also some things that I think he needs to improve upon to reach that full 40 home run potential that I think he has.
The first part of Calhoun’s profile that I like is that he makes a ton of contact while he swings at a rate that is just slightly above league average. Maybe more impressive is that he’s supposed to be a power hitter, and power hitters aren’t supposed to have contact rates, chase rates, and whiff rates like Calhoun’s. Let’s take a look at some areas of Calhoun’s plate discipline compared to league average:
That all looks really good for a player in his first taste of consistent major league playing time. While Calhoun perhaps isn’t likely to post a high on-base percentage because he loves to swing the bat so much, he isn’t swinging at pitches out of the zone at a high rate. In fact, his chase rate is right in line with the league average, which is extremely positive to see. The hitters that are towards the top of the Z-Contact% leaderboard generally aren’t power hitters. There are some exceptions of course, with hitters such as Anthony Rendon, Alex Bregman, and Mookie Betts all towards the top, but for the most part, the hitters that lead in Z-Contact% usually don’t have a surplus of home run power. Calhoun though has the potential to hit 40 or more home runs, and he’ll have an easier path getting there with his ability to make contact, avoid chasing at a worrisome rate, and not whiff frequently. If you didn’t know anything else about Calhoun as a hitter except for those stats in the above table, you probably wouldn’t guess that this is a hitter who hit home runs at a close-to-40 pace in 2019.
Let’s go a bit deeper though and look at some other areas of Calhoun’s contact profile that stand out. Immediately looking at his StatCast profile, I see that both his hard-hit rate of 40.7% and his average exit velocity of 89.7 mph are above the league averages of 34.5% and 87.5 mph, respectively. Knowing that combined with his excellent Z-Contact%, I went looking for other hitters with similar rates to see who else in the league compares to Calhoun in this area. It’s a pretty exclusive group as seen below:
This table looks at all hitters with at least 200 plate appearances to have an average exit velocity of at least 88.5 mph, a hard-hit rate of at least 40%, and a Z-Contact rate of at least 87%. There are a few names here that aren’t as impressive as others, but for the most part, this is a good group of hitters. While Calhoun doesn’t fare as well in the hard-hit department as hitters like Rendon, Betts, and DJ LeMahieu, Calhoun is quite similar to hitters like Francisco Lindor, Max Kepler, and Ketel Marte, all three of whom are quite good themselves. As I’ll show later on, Calhoun’s lower hard-hit rate could be explained by his biggest weakness. Overall though, this is a good baseline for Calhoun as a hitter. It’s a good thing to hit the ball hard and to make a lot of contact. If that were it on its own, it would be a good profile, but there is one other thing about Calhoun’s profile that I really like.
Talking about a power hitter, we do eventually have to talk about his power production. While Calhoun on the surface is not an extreme fly ball hitter, as evidenced by his 22.1% fly-ball rate (excluding pop-ups), Calhoun is, however, an extreme pull-hitter. His 50.0% pull rate is miles ahead of the 36.5% league average, and looking at all hitters with at least 200 plate appearances in 2019, that pull rate is the tenth-highest. It would be a good guess then that when he does hit fly balls, he hits them to his pull side very often. That is indeed true, and I have a table to prove it. Here is a look at the top pulled fly ball rates among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances:
|Player||Pulled FB||Flyballs||Pulled FB%|
You can see that Calhoun places fifth in this category. But why all the hassle over pulled fly balls though? Well, pulled fly balls generally get some of the best results of any batted ball type. While it’s not the most stable of contact year-to-year, and there have been plenty of hitters who have seen their production plummet trying to make adjustments to become more pull-fly ball happy, Calhoun has been a pretty extreme pull-hitter going all the way back to his debut in the minor leagues in 2015. He’s always had pull-rates close to or above 50% in the minor leagues. To add more to that, I went back to look at hitters since 2017 who have pulled the most fly balls in that time span. Despite only having 482 Major League plate appearances since 2017, Calhoun has the ninth-highest rate of pitches that end up being pulled fly-balls (minimum 400 plate appearances). I’d say that this is who Calhoun is naturally as a hitter, and I wouldn’t be super worried about him making a negative change that sends his results plummetting. In fact, I’d be optimistic that Calhoun will continue to hit so many pulled fly balls, which would be a great thing considering how strong results usually are when it happens.
Speaking of strong results, let’s compare Calhoun’s results on pulled fly balls to those hitters in that previous table showing the pulled fly ball leaders looking at both slugging and ISO:
|Player||Pulled FB%||SLG Pulled FB||ISO Pulled FB|
From this table, it’s clear that Calhoun’s results on pulled fly balls are the best of the hitters in this group, with only Miguel Sano and Matt Adams being close. Looking at how he compares to the league average, it’s clear how much he stands out in this area. While he’s not the best hitter out there in terms of these two categories, it is worth mentioning there are only two other hitters, Brett Gardner and ironically the league’s other Calhoun, Kole Calhoun, with a better ISO on pulled fly balls who actually hit more pulled fly balls in 2019 than Calhoun did. Remember, Calhoun only got about a half season’s worth of playing time in 2019, so that in itself should show how strong Calhoun is at hitting pulled fly balls. I’m confident that Calhoun will continue to get a lot of pulled fly balls, and with his ability to make quality contact, he should continue to get good results. However, that doesn’t mean that are some areas of his profile as a hitter that he could improve on.
While every hitter in baseball could be better with a few improvements, when it comes to Calhoun there are is one major area of his batting profile that makes me question how complete a hitter he will become or if his 2019 pace is sustainable: his extreme rate of infield fly balls. For Calhoun, this isn’t anything new, as he’s had infield fly ball rates as high as 38.9% in the minor leagues per FanGraphs. During his previous two short stints in the majors in 2017 and 2018 though, Calhoun’s pop-up issues didn’t pop up that much (no pun intended). Sure, it was a high 16.7% in 2017, but that was just 13 games at the end of the season. He followed it up with a much better 9.4% IFFB rate in more games in 2018, which would have been a positive sign if the pop-ups didn’t pop up so much in 2019 (okay, pun intended that time).
Looking at Statcast data now, Calhoun’s 15.1% pop-up rate in 2019 was the fourth-highest among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, and it is over double the league average. The two hitters at the top of the leaderboard are Mike Zunino and Travis Shaw, two hitters that had two of the worst seasons at the plate in 2019. This is significant when analyzing Calhoun because infield flies are essentially automatic outs. Looking at Calhoun’s strikeout rate, it looks good at 15.7% but factoring in those other automatic outs from the pop-ups, you could think of his strikeout rate as essentially being 30%. While the league average in this automatic-out rate is around 30% (29.6% to be exact), these pop-ups shouldn’t be ignored when evaluating Calhoun.
More importantly, in my opinion, is what this does to his HR/FB rate. On its own, HR/FB% doesn’t include infield flies, and Calhoun’s standard HR/FB% is very good because that’s not factoring in all of those pop-ups. In 2019, Calhoun’s HR/FB% was 36.8%, which was inside the top-25 in all of baseball. However, since we know that Calhoun hits so many pop-ups, I feel that his 36.8 HR/FB% is a bit misleading. To try and get a more accurate representation, I found the number of fly balls and pop-ups for each hitter with at least 250 plate appearances and calculated their HR/FB rate including pop-ups, and looked for the hitters with the biggest differences in their two rates, as seen below:
Calhoun is the point highlighted in red, and from this graph, we can easily see that Calhoun sticks out and the axes show how different his HR/FB rate is when including pop-ups. Specifically, Calhoun’s 36.8 HR/FB% falls to 21.9% when we include pop-ups into the calculation. How significant is that drop-off? Well, take a look at this table:
This table, showing the ten hitters with the biggest change in the HR/FB rate when pop-ups are included, has Calhoun at the top. The new league average when pop-ups are included is around 18%, so while Calhoun is still above-average in this metric, he is no longer viewed as one of the top-25 best in baseball at turning his fly balls into home runs. Instead of being considered in a tier of hitters that includes Gary Sanchez, Willson Contreras, Shohei Ohtani, or Mike Trout by regular HR/FB rate, he is now the 95th-best hitter by HR/FB+IFFB rate and is closer to hitters such as Christian Walker, Austin Meadows, Ketel Marte, and Carlos Santana. While those are all fine hitters, they aren’t exactly the hitters that would first pop into mind when thinking of the game’s best power hitters, and there is a lot more to their games than what Calhoun currently features. While it is very possible to have success hitting a lot of pop-ups, evidenced by Yuli Gurriel, Nolan Arenado, and Alex Bregman being three of the top four hitters with the most pop-ups hit in 2019, I think Calhoun would be better off trying to get his pop-up issue under control, as I’m not sure he’ll maintain a 40-home-run pace in the future.
As it stands right now, Willie Calhoun is a hitter who had a nice 2019 season in which he finally got a run of extended playing time. There are definitely reasons to be happy and excited by what Calhoun did in 2019, but when evaluating his 2019 season as it relates to what he could do in 2020, I’m not sure the answer to double his 2019 production is necessarily the way to go.
While he does a lot of things well as a young hitter, such as his ability to make a lot of contact, not whiff a lot, and hit a lot of pulled fly balls—one of the most optimal results a hitter can achieve—there is a good baseline for Calhoun to improve upon in 2020. However, for him to fully reach the potential that I believe he has, he needs to cut down on his number of pop-ups.
Overall, Calhoun should be a productive major league hitter, and if the Rangers give him the opportunity for everyday playing time in 2020, he should reward them with a strong season. However, I think expectations should be brought down a little. His counting stats from 2019 may look enticing, especially if he were on fantasy squads for a whole season, but I don’t think we should be expecting that to happen right now.
Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by James Peterson (@jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)