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Milwaukee Brewers free agent targets: Kole Calhoun

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Changes in hitting approach hint at a diamond in the rough

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Kole Calhoun became a free agent after the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim declined his $14 million option this past November following a 2019 season that saw him belt 33 home runs. With the recent signing of Anthony Redon, the Angels declining of his option was as much to do about freeing up money to go after a top tier free agent than anything else. Their loss might be another team’s gain if he is able to tap into improvements made at the plate in 2019. Reports suggest that the Milwaukee Brewers are interested in the services of the long time Angels’ outfielder.

Calhoun’s stock certainly fell after an atrocious 2018 campaign. What was a 3.5 fWAR player started to show kinks in the armor as early as 2016. He posted 3.5 fWAR that season, but teams began employing the shift against him much more in that season. in 2016 teams shifted on Calhoun in 315 of his plate appearances compared to just 154 plate appearances in 2015.

The shifting has remained a constant against Calhoun since and his offensive production fell as a result. Somehow Calhoun performed reasonably well against the shift in 2016 than he had in 2017 and 2018, but that is likely because of 7% difference in ground ball rate against the shift between 2016 and 2017/2018. The ultimate result has been lowering BABIP (.309 in 2016 vs. .241 in 2018) and eventually lower WAR. In 2017 he posted a 2.1 fWAR and 0 fWAR in 2018.

Opposing teams had Calhoun’s number, and he was in danger of exiting the league if he did not rebound in 2019. To do that, Calhoun and his coaches in Anaheim got to work in overhauling the right fielder’s hitting approach with the ultimate goal to get more balls in the air. Calhoun’s outs were often on the ground (generally between 43-44% GB%) and into the shift. The effort was not to just get the ball into the air however. He only reduced his GB% by about 3% in 2019 and he actually got the ball in the air more in 2016 than he has since. They were trying to get him to pull the ball more and hit it harder when he did. He had a career high in pull percentage in 2019 at 50.5% resulting in a hard contact rate of 42.3%. In fact he was in the 73rd percentile in hard hit percentage in 2019.

Calhoun worked very hard on his hitting mechanics between 2018 and 2019 for obvious reasons. Fabian Ardaya of the Athletic (subscription required) illustrated this in his article regarding Calhoun’s many changes to his batting stances. If you have access to the article by Ardaya, you will see that Calhoun looks awkward and often off balance as he tinkered with his swing coming into the 2019 season. Compare that to what the swing became at the end of 2019 and we have a totally different hitter with pop, not to mention he has an elite arm from the outfield.

Calhoun not only became part of the launch angle revolution, but the pull the ball revolution as well. The change worked for him. While his BABIP has not returned to 2016 levels (.309), he did see a slight increase in 2019. Calhoun is now selling out for power as is obvious with the home run numbers. Those home run numbers came from pulling the ball more in the air for his best HR/FB% of his career by far (22.9%). If he can maintain that, it would play in a stadium like Miller Park.

Home Runs hit by Kole Calhoun 2019

While a .232 batting average in 2019 fails to do it for some of the Milwaukee fanbase, a .325 OBP is not terrible and a .467 SLG is pretty good. Those numbers are even depressed somewhat due to an awful April. From May 1 to the end of the season, Calhoun slashed .241/.335/.475 with 26 home runs and a 113 wRC+ over 511 plate appearances. Those numbers just might be more in line with actual performance following swing changes. This is not to mention that he would likely be in somewhat of a platoon since he hits right handed pitching better than left handed pitching (wRC+ = 112 vs. RHP and wRC+ 97 vs. LHP), and he would be playing in Miller Park (plays up for LHH) and not the Big A in Anaheim (not hitter friendly).

At 32 years old, Calhoun is not going to command a long term contract. MLBTradeRumors.com predicted that he would receive a 1-year, $6 million contract. That is certainly in the wheel house of Milwaukee’s budget.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant