It was a long time coming, especially for an avid participant in the #FreeWillie movement. When Spring Training began earlier this year, many Rangers fans felt they had the potential 2018 American League rookie of the year waiting in the wings. There was a time that many of us, especially me, saw Willie Calhoun as the best option for the Rangers left field spot on Opening Day. Club management clearly felt differently.
I was convinced Calhoun would break camp with the big club and I certainly didn’t expect him to be sent from big league camp so early in March. There was a lot of drama about service time and defense, some rumors of a bad attitude, a benching for allegedly not running out a ground ball, and a subtle, since deleted, tweet that sent a big message. Still, the Rangers, in the midst of a disappointing season, decided it was time to let one of the most talented players in their minor league system join the 25 man roster and get his feet wet before a run at relevancy in 2019.
The Rangers teased us by bringing Calhoun up for 37 plate appearances in 2017, leaving us all wanting more. Finally, on July 20th, the California native made his Rangers 2018 debut. He has appeared in 21 games since then. Two were as a pinch hitter, one was as a designated hitter and the other 18 came in what we can expect to be his home for many years to come, left field.
So what are we here to do today? Well, we’re going to discuss Calhoun’s first three weeks of 2018 with the Rangers, of course. Save your sample size comments, I know it’s not fair to evaluate a player over the course of three weeks, especially one that had only seen MLB pitching 37 times, and that was nearly a year ago, coming into this. That’s why I say we are “discussing”, not “evaluating”.
On Friday, Willie Calhoun made his 2018 debut and picked up his first hit & RBI. Tonight, the #Rangers‘ No. 2 prospect is batting 8th and playing left field.
Full scouting report on the @Rangers Top 30 list: https://t.co/Ebz4rwHMV8 pic.twitter.com/k0Ahy4VEGg
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) July 21, 2018
He came up after the All-Star break for a wild one with the Cleveland Indians, and he wasted no time making an impact. Calhoun was slotted in as the DH and was hitting in the two hole. In his second at bat he had an RBI single to tie the game in the second. It was the type of hit that we will expect to see from Calhoun over the years. It was a chopper that was hit straight into the ground and bounced over the first baseman’s head. Sure, Willie has some pop in his bat and has some raw power, but the reason he is so good at the plate is his sheer bat to ball skills. He won’t always have a big launch angle uppercut swing, he has more of a level swing that produces consistent contact and sprays the ball all over the field. Expect a lot of hits like that one in the future.
Since that first game, Calhoun has been in left field on the days he has started and has hit seventh, eighth, or ninth, in every game. We saw his first, and only, homer of the season just four nights later against Oakland in another wild game. (It was the 10-2 blown lead game, but we won’t relive that.) That homer was a blast to the second deck in left field off of a Frankie Montas two-seamer. It was a fast start for the everyday left fielder of the future as he hit safely in 11 of his first 15 games. He’s only posted three multi hit games so far, but is currently riding a four game hitting streak.
— MLBBarrelAlert (@MLBBarrelAlert) July 25, 2018
The spraycharts are what you’d expect to see, which is a good sign. They show Calhoun using the entire field as 38.5% of his batted balls have been up the middle, 36.5% to the pull side, and 25% to the opposite field. While you’d like to see the hard hit rate of 25% trend up from here, only 23% of his batted balls have fallen into the soft contact category. The 23% strikeout rate is obviously a product of the small sample size and we can expect that come down and hang around 17-18% in the future. I also think the walk rate will go up a little bit as well.
So, what about the defense? It’s been adequate and, to be frank, probably a little better than most expected. This is not meant to take anything away from Willie. Both he and the club have been vocal about how hard he has been working to improve his defense, but sometimes that can be talk and you need to see it displayed on the field. Clearly he has been putting in the work. His -3 DRS and -0.8 UZR over 131 innings are good signs that the glove is headed in the right direction. Seeing if this trend continues will be one of the big storylines for the Rangers down the home stretch of 2018.
At this point, I think you trot him out there and try and help him be better prepared for a potential Rangers run at competitiveness in 2019. The sample size is small and things will change with time, but I think we can all agree on a few things: Calhoun is showing his true colors, the numbers will catch up, at the plate by making consistent contact to all areas of the field. He and the club claim he has been working on his defense and so far to this point he has shown no signs of not being ready for left field. While it may have been a little rocky at times, it seems as though the relationship between Calhoun and the Rangers is in a much better place than earlier in the season.