Kole Calhoun: The Surprise That Was Right In Front of Us

BY foxsports • November 24, 2014

Kole Calhoun tore his way through the minor leagues. He hit the ground running in his 2013 debut. Why was there any surprise when he put up a top-10 season for an American League outfielder this year?

There are reasons, or maybe we could say excuses, for Calhoun's dismissal as a prospect. He never made a top 100 Baseball America list, he never made that organization's top 10 prospects on the Angels, and there wasn't much buzz about him coming up. He's not tall -- at 5-10 -- and his Baseball America write-up said his tools were "uninspiring." 

And once he started putting up minor-league stats, there were reasons to dismiss those as well. Calhoun signed as a 22-year-old out of college. He was a year older than the average player in rookie ball, so maybe that helped with the .292/.411/.505 slash line at Orem. He was older than average in A-ball, so maybe we shouldn't gaze too longingly at that .324/.410/.547 line in Inland Empire. And Triple-A? That was Salt Lake in the Pacific Coast League. Obviously his .298/.369/.507 there was inflated.

So there were reasons, or maybe excuses. But after Calhoun debuted in 2013 with offense that was 27% better than league average, he faced a new struggle last season. "Obviously they're going to have a lot more information on me now than they've had in the past," the player admitted in late 2014. "It's my job to understand what they are trying to do and know what my weaknesses are and not really give them too much of a chance to expose them."

It was nice that you were as good as your numbers promised, kid, but can you keep it up when they've got a book on you?

The biggest adjustment seems to be the one that comes after the debut. As Calhoun says: "They're always going to try to hit the holes in your swing, or find somewhere where they think they can get you and you have to do a good job of laying off those and getting your pitch to hit." Can we find the holes that he showed in 2013 and see how pitchers used that information in 2014?

Um. No? Check out this heat map for his 2013 work, courtesy of Baseballheatmaps.com. No hole, just a nice warm glow middle-in.


That's what good plate discipline will do for you. That isn't to say that nothing was learned. By FanGraphs' pitch type values, Calhoun didn't do well against breaking balls in 2013. This year, the percentage of curveballs he saw doubled from 6% to 12.4%. His percentage of fastballs seen went down accordingly.

Even if Calhoun didn't think that the lack of fastballs was a trend that would stick, he did admit that the pitching mix had changed a bit the second time through the league. "Had some success early, and now they're mixing it up on me," he said.

When asked about how the pitchers had changed their location on him, Calhoun talked about two spots in particular. "There have been times where it's been difficult for me to get to the inside pitch and then times when it's been difficult to hit the ball away," the outfielder said.

But when you look at the swing and pitch heat maps, it looks like the most important zones for him this past season were away over the plate and then high in the zone. Especially if you divide the season into two halves, considering his early work (.876 OPS before the All-Star break) was much better than his late-season work (.696 OPS after the break). In the early part of the season, it looked like pitchers just stuck with the low-and-away mantra:


Calhoun didn't really bite, though:


So the pitchers look like they decided to run it up the ladder a bit. Look at his pitch percentage high in the zone late in the season:


This adjustment was a little tougher for Calhoun to make. See his swing rate on pitches up in the zone late in the season:


The good news is that, despite a late-season swoon (and perhaps the emergence of a small hole up in the zone), Calhoun still has a nice swing map. The plate discipline has traveled with him to the major leagues.

As has his line-drive, up-the-middle stroke. Though he has some pull power, his hits don't cluster, they scatter all over the field. And since he's made it to the bigs, Calhoun has been top-20 in the American League in line drive rate. Along with that discipline, this package of skills is what prompted Mike Scioscia to tell David Laurila that Calhoun was "one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball."

But the player himself doesn't think his approach is too remarkable. "Everybody tries to practice a line-drive swing, everybody says home runs happen." Calhoun said of his success so far. "I just want to beat the guy on the mound, however it happens."