The Mariners Add Insurance Plan For Their Outfield

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a pretty quiet offseason in Seattle. The Mariners got things moving fairly quickly, trading for Teoscar Hernández and Kolten Wong to cover the holes left by a couple of departing free agents, but things slowed down after that. They’ve brought in a couple of veterans to provide a bit of depth, but are otherwise largely banking on a repeat of their success last year and some continued growth from their young core. They made one more last minute addition yesterday, signing Kole Calhoun to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Bringing in an 11-year veteran like Calhoun is the type of move that plenty of teams make during the spring, but they rarely work out for the player involved. Most ball clubs are content to roll out whatever internal depth they already have instead of clearing a 40-man roster spot to add a player on a minor league deal. But every once in a while, a veteran will show that he has just enough left in the tank during spring training to break camp on the Opening Day roster.

If you squint, you can see how Calhoun could be primed for a bounce back season in 2023. A long-time Angel, he really started to struggle during his final seasons in Anaheim. From 2017–19, he put up a 94 wRC+ and accumulated 3.5 WAR, with a career-high 33 home runs in his final season for Los Angeles. He joined the Diamondbacks in free agency the following year and produced a career-high 125 wRC+ and 1.5 WAR during the shortened season. The last two years haven’t been kind to him, however. A recurring hamstring injury cut short most of his 2021 season and his production cratered last year after signing a one-year deal with the Rangers, with his wRC+ falling to a career-low 67.

When you look at his underlying batted ball data, you’ll find that Calhoun really didn’t deserve such rough results on his balls in play. Simply looking at his Statcast expected stats tells most of the story: his expected batting average was .223 and his expected slugging percentage was .382, 27 and 52 points higher than what he actually accomplished, respectively. That underperformance ranked 13th and 15th in the league among qualified batters. A look at his batted ball peripherals tells an even more interesting story:

Kole Calhoun, Batted Ball Peripherals
Years EV Max EV 95EV FB+LD EV Barrel% Hard Hit%
2015-19 88.7 110.1 105.3 92.7 7.1% 38.1%
2020 89.4 109.0 105.8 94.0 11.8% 38.2%
2021 88.5 108.9 103.0 94.0 6.3% 38.9%
2022 90.8 109.9 104.9 95.6 9.8% 48.2%

Last year, Calhoun increased his hard-hit rate by 9.3 points, the largest year-over-year increase among all batters with at least 400 plate appearances in 2022. He also saw significant improvements in his exit velocities, whether you are calculating a straight average, taking only his elevated contact, or looking at his 95th-percentile exit velocity. With the injuries that had hampered him a few years ago behind him, he was able to impact the ball with the same kind of authority as he did during his outstanding 2020 season. That kind of batted ball quality should have resulted in much better outcomes when putting the ball in play.

Perhaps one of the reasons he struggled to find success is that he has become pretty pull happy in recent seasons. In 2020, his pull rate reached a career high of 59.0%, and while it hasn’t been as high since, he was still among the league leaders in pulled contact last year. As a result, opposing defenses deployed a shift against him in 93.4% of his plate appearances last year, the seventh-highest shift rate in the majors. The restrictions on defensive shifts won’t be a silver bullet for all his batted ball woes, but you’d expect to see at least a few more groundballs sneak through the right side without a third defender in shallow right field.

That’s where the good news ends, however. The biggest reason Calhoun’s overall production fell so precipitously was because his plate discipline fell apart. His chase rate, contact rate, and swinging strike rates were all career worsts, which led to a 10 point increase in strikeout rate. Despite making loud contact when he was putting the ball in play, he simply didn’t put his bat on the ball often enough. Calhoun has had a solid approach at the plate in the past; over the three seasons prior to 2022, he ran a 24.3% strikeout rate and a 10.8% walk rate.

Instead of sticking with his honed aggression, he’s increased his overall swing rate each year since 2020. Last year, it was up to 53%, and when a lot more of those swings are coming on pitches outside of the zone and end up touching air, it’s a quick slide towards disaster. If you want to grasp at straws, Calhoun did improve his plate discipline metrics toward the very end of the season, lowering his swing rate to around 45% and his chase rate under 30%.

The chances that Calhoun will dress in Northwest Teal on March 30 are pretty slim. The Mariners have Julio Rodríguez and Hernández installed in center and right field and have a handful of options to deploy in left, including Jarred Kelenic, AJ Pollock, Sam Haggerty, and Dylan Moore. They did lose a potential piece of depth when Taylor Trammell broke his hamate bone during a spring workout; he will be sidelined for at least seven weeks. Haggerty and Moore are both recovering from offseason surgeries as well, though they seem to be on track to be ready to contribute by Opening Day. Losing Trammell, if only temporarily, likely opened up an opportunity for Calhoun to prove he has something left in the tank.

There’s also the question of whether Kelenic will ever be ready to take on a full-time role in the majors. He has the talent and tools, but he simply hasn’t been able to translate them into consistent major league success. He made some subtle adjustments in September and worked to build off those this offseason. When he reported to camp this spring, the Mariners were thrilled with the work he had put in to address the issues in his swing. He’s still competing for a spot on the big league roster, though he would need to have an absolutely dismal spring for the Mariners to consider breaking camp without him on the 26-man roster.

That means Calhoun really needs to prove he can contribute as a backup outfielder and potentially part-time designated hitter. If the contact quality sticks and his plate discipline bounces back towards his career norms, there’s a shot. And even if he doesn’t make the M’s Opening Day roster, he could take the Matt Carpenter route and make an impact elsewhere in the middle of the season.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Mitchell Mooremember
1 year ago

If Calhoun makes the Mariner squad it will be because horrible things have befallen others.