The Kurious Kase of Kole Calhoun

In 2016 Kole Calhoun produced his third 3+ fWAR season for the Los Angeles Angels. Despite not hitting as many home runs are the previous season (18 in 2016 v 26 in 2015), he increased his walk rate (10.0% v 6.6%) and decreased his strikeout rate (17.6% v 23.9%). It was also his third season of double digit home runs, which despite not reaching the dizzy heights of his team mate and outfield partner — Mike Trout — it was a solid and important contribution to the organisation.
Not bad for an 8th round, 264th overall pick, with a draft report that read:
Outfielder Kole Calhoun is a 5-foot-10 overachiever who should get a job somewhere. He’s hit well at Arizona State…won’t hit for enough power to play a corner outfield spot in the big leagues, which is where he projects defensively.
We all get things wrong, the idea of adding this quote isn’t to “shove it to the man”. It’s to note that despite his ability to hit, there was concern he wouldn’t do well enough to make it in the bigs. So to get where he is now, is pretty bloody impressive.
In 2017, Calhoun had another productive season with 19 HR and continued to increase his walk rate to 10.9%. However, his strikeout rate sneaked back up to 20.5%. So was that the beginning of where we are now with Calhoun? Let’s just look at his current stats.
If you cannot see the table correctly (usually on mobile devices) switch to portrait mode.
Stats correct as of 27th May 18

169 1 5.3% 24.9% .205 .157 .201 .195 9 -0.9

Quick stat recap:
BABIP is Batting Average on Balls In Play
<.300 unlucky
.300 normal
>.300 lucky
wRC+ is Weight Runs Created (Adjusted for park effects)
100 is league average
160 is excellent
60 is awful
It’s an ugly start to the year, some of the problems we can immediately see are the home run production is down, walk rate is way down, strikeout rate continues to climb and BABIP says he’s been pretty unlucky. As for wRC+, the guide stops the scale at 60 (awful), so 9 is really awful.
Now, the first thing I wanted to do was find out if Calhoun is still getting good contact on the ball. As this could be the beginnings of his problems when it comes to BABIP, his BA and getting on base.

Nothing out of the ordinary here, if anything he’s getting more hard contact this season. What about the sorts of hits he’s been getting, is he part of the “Launch Angle Revolution” and keeping the ball off the ground?

Quite the opposite. Here we see quite a dramatic climb in ground ball rate, he’s gone from below 40% in his best year with the Angels to over 50% this season. His flyball rate has done the reverse and dropped significantly. There is a third type of hit — line drive — which again, has dropped to 17% this season.
So he’s still getting the same type of contact in terms of power, but he’s significantly changed his batted ball type and has inexplicably developed into more of a ground ball hitter.
So let’s move onto the walk rate, time for another quick stat explanation prior to the data:
When a pitch is thrown it’s deemed either in the zone or outside the zone. O-Swing is swings on a pitch outside the zone, Z-Swing is swings on a pitch inside the zone. The same is true for O-Contact / Z-Contact. This data is from Brooks Baseball and is deemed a little more reliable than the automatic results.

Year O-Swing % Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact%
2016 31.1% 71.3% 54.9% 87.4%
2017 29.8% 68.2% 56.7% 85.9%
2018 30.4% 74.1% 56.7% 84.0%

He’s swinging at pitches at a higher rate outside and inside the strike zone, which doesn’t necessarily mean bad things for the walk rate. He has maintained his contact rate outside the zone but decreased it inside the zone. Which brings us nicely onto his increase in strikeouts.
His strikeout looking vs all strikeouts percentage has taken a steady increase over the last 3 years.

Year Strikeout Looking Vs All Strikeouts %
2016 14.4%
2017 17.9%
2018 16.7%

Let us now look at which types of pitches Calhoun is striking out on. A point to note is that the types of pitches Calhoun has seen hasn’t changed much over the last few years. The three pitch types in this chart of Fastball, breaking and offspeed.

And there is an answer to the strikeouts. Despite pitchers not utilising it more than normal, Calhoun is seriously struggling against breaking pitches this season. Which doesn’t bode well as starters league wide this season, are very much relying on breaking pitches more than fastballs.
So what is the future for Calhoun? Calhoun still remains important on the defensive side of the ball, as per his draft report. However, unless he starts to turn things around at the plate, the Angels may start looking elsewhere. It might be High Cal-noon for Kole.

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