Kole Calhoun Heads Home to the Desert

There’s nothing like a good homecoming story during the holidays, and in this tale, Kole Calhoun will serve as our protagonist. The Arizona native and Arizona State alumnus will return to the desert in 2020, as Calhoun and the Diamondbacks agreed to a two-year, $16 million contract according to multiple reports on Tuesday. The deal includes a team option for 2022 valued at $9 million.

Calhoun, now 32, became a free agent in early November after the Angels declined his $14 million team option in favor of a $1 million buyout. Though he was effective last season, the decision was an easy one for Los Angeles; with top prospect Jo Adell waiting in the wings to play right field full-time, it made little sense to keep Calhoun around.

Calhoun is a much clearer fit for the Diamondbacks. He’ll slot in quite nicely at his primary position, where he will essentially replace Adam Jones, who signed with Japan’s Orix Blue Wave earlier this offseason. Though he started his 2019 campaign hot, Jones was effectively a replacement-level player across 137 games last year, posting an 87 wRC+ in 528 plate appearances; he was worth -0.1 WAR. In total, Diamondbacks right fielders produced a total of 0.9 WAR, good for 26th in the majors.

In that regard, Calhoun is an upgrade, especially if his 2019 numbers prove to be repeatable. He set numerous career-highs last year, and in important areas too: Calhoun posted top marks in home runs (33), isolated power (.236), and walk rate (11%). Across the board, he hit to the tune of a .232/.325/.467 line and a 108 wRC+, his best offensive season in three years. This, combined with his usually good defense (resulting in a 5.1 UZR), led to a 2.5-WAR season, ranking 29th out of the 53 outfielders who qualified for the batting title.

As Calhoun settles into his new (read: old) home in Arizona, it is fair to question whether his 2019 offensive figures were inflated by the juiced baseball and if he’ll continue to hit at that level going forward. As noted above, his 2019 output was his best offensive season in three years — Calhoun posted a 97 wRC+ in 2017 and a 79 wRC+ in 2018. Even in the former of those two years, his defense kept him afloat (2.1 WAR in 2017), but in 2018, he was just about replacement-level overall.

Calhoun’s Offensive Ups and Downs
2017 654 .244 .333 .392 19 10.9% 20.5% .315 97 2.1
2018 552 .208 .283 .369 19 9.6% 24.1% .283 79 0.0
2019 632 .232 .325 .467 33 11.1% 25.6% .330 108 2.5

The underlying metrics indicate that tangible improvements came for Calhoun in 2019, including an important increase in his average launch angle (from 12.0 degrees to 14.7 degrees) and an important decrease in his groundball rate (43% to 41%). He was certainly aided by a sky-high 23% home run per fly ball rate, a mark that was almost double his career-average going into last season (12.9%). While he did barrel more balls per Statcast, it’s entirely possible that his 33 home run mark represents something of a juiced ball fluke.

Chase Field could work in Calhoun’s favor, as it is one of the more hitter-friendly ballparks in the majors. The extent to which it may impact him, however, is a bit unclear. In 2019, there was a -.001 difference between left-handed hitters’ wOBA on contact and xwOBA on contact at Chase Field, compared to a -.003 difference at Angel Stadium. Over 600 plate appearances, this would serve to be rather inconsequential for Calhoun’s numbers, while other ballparks could have made a more significant impact.

Left-Handed Hitters, wOBA-xwOBA on Contact
Ballpark Overall Rank LF Rank CF Rank RF Rank
Chase Field -.001 21 +.072 14 -.034 18 -.007 21
Angel Stadium -.003 23 -.005 30 +.009 4 -.012 24

Even if Calhoun’s bat regresses to right around league average, his defense alone will likely be enough to make this a positive deal for the Diamondbacks. ZiPS projects Calhoun to still be worth 2.8 WAR over the course of the contract, even in spite of league-average offensive numbers:

ZiPS Projection – Kole Calhoun
2020 .249 .332 .448 511 80 127 27 3 23 76 61 134 4 99 3 1.7
2021 .244 .325 .432 431 65 105 23 2 18 62 49 108 4 94 2 1.1

Arizona has been surprisingly active this offseason. They inked Madison Bumgarner to a five-year contract on December 15, while making less noise in their pursuits of catcher Stephen Vogt and reliever Junior Guerra. Even with these additions, our Depth Charts projections peg the Diamondbacks for 33.3 WAR, equating to roughly 81 victories. With the year-to-year variability both within the WAR totals and how they translate into wins, a Wild Card spot isn’t outside the realm of possibility for the Diamondbacks.

In 2019, the team finished just four games behind the Brewers for the second Wild Card while posting the sixth-best run differential in the National League at +70. They added and subtracted at the trade deadline, allowing them to fulfill both short- and long-term needs. Zack Greinke was sent to the Astros in a five-player deal, while potentially important 2020 rotation pieces Mike Leake and Zac Gallen were acquired from the Mariners and Marlins, respectively. Those deals, coupled with an incredibly deep draft, has resulted in one of the better farm systems in baseball, with two of their top six prospects having been part of the return in the Greinke deal.

In the context of the Diamondbacks’ short-term goals, which appear to possible include contention, Calhoun is a perfect addition. He fills an obvious hole in right field, allowing the D-backs to check off at least one of their team needs heading into the offseason. He’s also been quite the underrated player over the course of his career, and if all breaks right, the native Arizonan could help the Diamondbacks return to the postseason for the first time since 2017. While it might not be the flashiest of Christmas presents for Diamondbacks fans, the Calhoun signing has all the makings of a good deal.

Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.

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2 years ago

Good article, good signing for the D-backs, and good luck to Kole.