By Robert Cunningham, Angelswin.com Senior Writer
Let us start this conversation with a game of blind player comparison using information from FanGraphs. One of the names below is Kole Calhoun. Guess the other two without looking (answer in the Summary below):
In order to better understand Kole’s 2018 season we need to break it up into the 1st and 2nd half numbers:
It has been well documented that Calhoun made a significant change to his swing to start the season last year, which resulted in a terrible first half, and then, after a significant disabled list stint, he returned on June 18th, utilizing yet another new stance, which produced far better results.
Clearly whatever he was doing from late June through the end of the season was spot on. His ground ball percentage plummeted 13.4% to 36.1%, his line drive rate shot up to an exceptional 27.1%, and his HR/FB ratio shot up 3% to 16.4%.
The experiment with his swing really appears to have messed with Calhoun’s season as he sought a solution to his inconsistency in 2017. However, the good news is that he finally found the answer when he hit the disabled list and returned a reinvigorated hitter. If he can replicate his 2nd half there will be zero concern about his production in 2019.
Wins Above Replacement (WAR)
So, at 0 WAR, Kole clearly had the worst offensive season of his career. This brings his running 3-year average WAR to 1.8.
Calhoun, just like Upton, is now on the wrong side of 30 years old (he will be age 31 for the 2019 season). Some feel that his struggles in 2017 and 2018 reflect age-related decline but the peripheral numbers (Hard%, BABIP, LD%, etc.) tell a decidedly different tale. Father time will eventually take his toll on Kole but everything regarding his swing changes and the underlying story with respect to his quality of contact point to a competent player.
As we touched on above, Kole turned in a really solid 109 wRC+, in the 2nd half, in comparison to the terrible 51 wRC+ from the 1st half.
It is that 2nd swing change, upon Calhoun’s return from the disabled list, that gives a lot of hope that he will prove a very valuable member of the team in 2019. His isolated power jumped 60 points from the 1st to 2nd half, providing a sparkling .192 ISO. His doubles jumped up, in part to the 27.1% LD% rate, from 5 to 13 from the 1st to 2nd half.
Kole pulled the ball a lot but the primary difference, beyond the defensive shifts, was his ability to loft the ball more, primarily by reducing the number of ground balls he hit and his elevated Hard% rate, which made all the difference in driving the ball past the defenders.
Calhoun has a career .293 BABIP and his 1st half number was .206, while his 2nd half BABIP normalized to .282. It should be expected that, barring more swing changes, he should return to his career number which should generate solid offensive results.
As far as Kole’s defense, FanGraphs ‘Def’ score has not favored him as much as Ultimate Zone Rating has.
FanGraphs gave Calhoun a -3.4 score for 2018 which is a fairly big swing from his 2.0 score in 2017. In fact FanGraphs seems to alternate year-to-year between positive and negative scores in regard to his defense.
UZR/150 however likes Kole’s range in particular and has given him consistently solid scores over the last five seasons, although they too have alternated up and down.
Age tends to hit defense first but there is reason to believe that Calhoun should perform well in the field in 2019, although it may not reach the heights it has in previous seasons. He has always been a hard-working gamer out in right field so the Angels assuredly feel comfortable with his defensive projections for next season.
Of course if Calhoun’s defense begins to noticeably decline, the Angels definitely have other solutions to turn too, in the Minors, such as Jo Adell and Michael Hermosillo, long-term.
All the projection systems agree that Kole should return to his career norms in 2019. A 20-HR, 70+ RBI/Runs type of season seems quite doable for him, likely running a .250/.320/.420 slash line with an approximate 105 wRC+.
This is partly based on Calhoun retaining the 2018, 2nd half performance level he turned in last year but it really is not a stretch to see him get there, so it feels low-risk for a player that has consistently hit those numbers for five of the last six MLB seasons. Expecting a 2.5 WAR season feels right at this stage in his career.
Kole is entering the last guaranteed year of his 3-year, $26M deal he signed prior to the start of the 2017 season.
The jury is still out on whether or not it was a good signing, particularly after his abysmal 2018, but Calhoun still has the 2019 season to redeem himself and if he performs even moderately well, he will have been worth the money paid.
Kole was signed to that deal with the explicit knowledge that the Angels would pivot in a different direction once his guaranteed years expired or at the end of his 2020 option year, if the Angels pick it up.
Right now the Halos have young Jo Adell, who will likely start 2019 in AA or AAA, nearly ready to take over right field duties, probably later this year or to start 2020.
Basically if the Angels are not in contention at the trade deadline, they will almost certainly trade Kole and bring up Adell for the remainder of the season. However, if the Angels are in it, they could go two different routes with one being a trade of Calhoun and promotion of Adell or, if Kole is excelling, they could simply retain him and move him in the off-season.
In the end Adell is the Angels future in right field and rightfully so. Fortunately Calhoun’s contract has the built-in flexibility (his 2020 option year) to allow Jo to come along at his own pace and earn the job, hopefully sooner rather than later.
So with this understanding, Kole will almost certainly start 2019 in right field. If he has trouble producing the Angels will bring up Adell once they have the additional year of control. Otherwise, the teams and Calhoun’s performances will drive what happens next at the Major League level. If Adell struggles in 2019, the Angels will seriously consider exercising Kole’s option year to fill the gap. After that Jo should be on the roster no matter what happens performance-wise.
Hard contact (Hard%) in general is highly sought after in Major League Baseball. It simply means the player is squaring up the ball consistently and with authority. Here are the player answers to our pop quiz above:
Kole Calhoun led the Angels in hard hit percentage (Hard%). Out of 140 qualified hitters in 2018, Calhoun ranked 16th overall in the same category. When you combine his 1st half BABIP and ground ball issues, it becomes pretty clear that his swing adjustment at the start of 2018 was a major factor in his poor 1st half performance and that his second swing adjustment, in mid-June, brought about much better results akin to the Kole we know and love.
A resurgent Calhoun seems like a pretty good bet to make in 2019 and when you combine that logic with his remaining contractual control, he is the best choice and risk for Billy Eppler to make with a talented, athletic player like Jo Adell knocking on the Major League door within the next year.