Tuesday, July 23, 2024
AL WestAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBTexas Rangers

Willie Calhoun is Willie Interesting

Yesterday, the Texas Rangers puzzlingly decided to demote Willie Calhoun to Triple-A. In this MLB Trade Rumors article by Mark Polishuk, it is noted that Calhoun revealed to The Athletic’s Levi Weaver in this piece, published on May 1st of this year, that “[I’m] gonna go to Triple-A and put myself in a position to get traded. I do want to be traded.'” Interestingly, “Rangers manager Chris Woodward told reporters Sunday the team wanted Calhoun ‘to work a little bit more vertical with his swing,’ but Calhoun said this clashed with his ideal approach as the ‘line-drive, doubles guy he was during his time in the Dodgers farm system” (Polishuk). In addition to conflicting hitting approaches, Calhoun hasn’t gotten a chance to play every day this season, having started only thirteen of the Rangers’ twenty-two games. I am aware that today, teams need to reduce the size of their rosters by two, but I don’t believe that this move is in the best interest of the Rangers and Willie Calhoun.

Looking solely at his actual production, a .136/.283/.273 slash line and 76 wRC+, one might be led to believe that the Rangers have made a good decision for Calhoun’s development. Looking at just actual production, though, is not looking at the complete picture, especially considering that he has only stepped up to the plate 53 times in 2022.

In the case of Calhoun, his expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA) is .344, 77 points higher than his actual wOBA (.267) and seventeen points higher than the league average xwOBA (.327). His predictive weighted on-base average (pwOBA) is .318, five percent above league average and 51 points higher than his actual one. Only 45 out of 386 batters have a higher pwOBA than Willie Calhoun does this season.

Part of the reason Willie Calhoun grades out well by pwOBA, a metric that includes regression to the mean, is that he has walked a lot (15.1%) and struck out infrequently (11.3%), particularly notable since BB% and K% are some of the more stable metrics year-to-year for hitters, so they are fairly reliable early in the season, especially compared to other statistics.

Image courtesy of Piper Slowinski on Fangraphs

The only batters this season with a greater ratio of walks to strikeouts than Willie Calhoun (1.33) are Josh Bell (1.40), Jesse Winker (1.42), Steven Kwan (1.50), Carlos Santana (1.75), Luis Arraez (1.75), and Yandy Díaz (2.33), minimum 50 plate appearances.

Willie Calhoun is only twenty-seven years old and was ranked on FanGraphs’ top 100 list before he graduated, yet he has never played more than half a season’s worth of games in a single year. He’s a bad defender (-13 OAA in his career in left field) and he’s slow (31st percentile sprint speed), but the offensive potential is there, and he’s shown glimpses of it. In his best big league season, 2019, he had a 110 wRC+ in 337 plate appearances, hitting 21 home runs. This season, his max exit velocity (110.4 mph) and average exit velocity (89.8 mph) rank above the 60th percentile. While Calhoun consistently hits the ball hard, he rarely barrels the ball up (2.7% barrel rate in 2022). He has also never recorded a league average or better predictive weighted on-base average on contact and has only posted at least a league-average weighted on-base average on contact once, and that was back in 2019. Furthermore, his launch angle standard deviation plus (118), which is launch angle standard deviation divided by league average and regressed to the mean, is the highest it’s ever been.

Generally speaking, it’s better for a hitter to have a tighter distribution of launch angles, so Calhoun is trending in the wrong direction in that regard.

One thing that Calhoun has improved on in 2022 is his ability to draw walks. His BB% this season (15.4) is over double what it was last year (7.4). What’s remarkable is that he HAS maintained a very low strikeout rate (12.0% in 2021 and 11.3% in 2022) while doing so.

I believe that many teams will be interested in Calhoun. Certainly, the Rangers don’t appear to be high on him. After looking at teams with the highest and lowest projected wins above replacement at the designated hitter position, I think that the Giants, a team now known for their player development prowess, might be the most likely to acquire Calhoun. Calhoun, who is on his rookie contract through the 2024 season, could platoon with the older Darin Ruf or just take over that job if the Giants were able to set him on the right track.