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You Down With O.B.P.? I Know Kole Calhoun Is

How Kole Calhoun has improved from last season and continues to show growth in his 3rd full Major League season.

Kole's clutch dinger against Texas
Kole's clutch dinger against Texas
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Kole Calhoun has become a staple for the Angels franchise and, perhaps even more so, the fanbase. It isn’t hard to understand why he’s a fan favorite, he was an 8th round pick out of Arizona State University in the infamous 2010 Angels draft class in which the Angels had five of the first forty picks and what eventually cost Scouting Director, Eddie Bane, his job. To salvage anything from that draft, aside from recent domination from Cam Bedrosian, would have been a godsend.

Thus Kole Calhoun was born. He always continued to produce results even when scouts and prospect hounds weren’t giving him any love (like seriously, go look at his minor league numbers, freaking solid) and he’s not exactly what you’d call "physically imposing", standing at 5’10, 205 lbs, another reason scouts never really seemed to give him much consideration. He hustles and plays his heart out every time he’s on the field, robs homeruns from time-to-time, and is an important cog to the Los Angeles Mike Trouts and Co. of Anaheim.

I cannot stress this enough, Kole is quintessential in the Angels’ success, you want to build around a superstar like Mike Trout? You need a Kole Calhoun.

Jeff Fletcher recently wrote a piece about Kole’s improvements against left-handed pitching, I wanted to take it a step further by using that article as a basis for this one. I’ll look at some things he’s done against left-handed pitching and some overall numbers. Let’s get into it.

Kole came into 2016 with a .244 average and .700 OPS against lefties, not cringe-worthy by any means, but it was hindering his ability to take that next step forward as a baseball player. We often see a lot of left-handed batters struggle against left-handed pitching for varying reasons, some struggle more than others, some have no problem with it. Of all qualifying major league hitters in a FanGraphs ranking against left-handed pitchers, only two in the top 30 were left-handed batters, Michael Saunders and Daniel Murphy, two pretty good hitters.

Overall, lefties have averaged a .241/.308/.368 (.676 OPS) slashline against same-handed pitchers, while producing other below-league average numbers like an 81 wRC+ (league-average for wRC+ is 100) and striking out at a hefty 22.3% rate. So Kole’s earlier career struggles weren’t necessarily an anomaly or anything to get too concerned about. In 2014, his slashline against left-handed pitching was .252/.322/.388 in 116 of his 537 plate appearances, not too shabby, the SLG% isn’t where you’d like to see it, but it could be worse. 2015? That slashline dropped to .220/.293/.370 in 224 of his 686 plate appearances.

Starting to get into the territory of a little more worrisome, he starts going from an everyday right fielder into more of a "platoon" or part-time outfielder with those numbers, that will do some damage to your overall value. Then boom, 2016 comes around and Kole’s sitting pretty with a .283/.355/.442 against left-handed pitching in 155 of his 606 plate appearances, better than his overall numbers (to date). The BABIP (batting average with balls in play) is a little high at .321, so is it all luck? I’m not so sure.

Kole’s got all of the advanced metrics backing him up that you would like to see, you’d ideally like to see how similar they were to his 2014 season when he was handling lefties fine, or you’d even like to see how they were better than his 2014 season. Some of the black-and-white numbers are easy to spot, his BB% was 7.8% and 7.6% in 2014 and 2015 (respectively), but jumped up to 9.7% this year. That may not sound like a lot, but he’s already basically tied his entire output from last season (17 BB’s in 224 plate appearances) in 69 less plate appearances this season (15 BB’s in 155 plate appearances).

Funny enough, his BB% against left-handed pitching in 2014 and 2015 was basically this years average for left-handed batters against left-handed pitching, 7.6%, that 2% is meaningful. It doesn’t stop there, he’s improved his K% in an even more significant manner, in 2014 and 2015 he had a 21.6% and 25.9% K rate, he was essentially striking out almost a quarter of the time (or in 2015, a quarter of the time) against left-handed pitching. He’s cut that to 18.1% this season, a huge improvement for the ‘Red Baron’. That’s 30 less K’s he had against left-handed pitching from last year in 69 less appearances. So his walk rate and K rate improved, which obviously correlates to a much better BB-to-K rate (0.36 in 2014, 0.29 in 2015, and 0.54 in 2016), a much better slashline, and better overall numbers for Kole. His SLG% even a lot. His SLG% from 2014-2016 went .388, .370, to a studly .442 SLG%.

You can also see it in his batted ball statistics. His Line Drive Percentage (LD%) went from 25.3% in 2014, to a lowly 14% in 2015, back up to a career high of 27.3% this year. Improve your contact rate, walk and work the count more, hit the ball harder, you’ll get results. Shocker. The other batted ball numbers will make you grin even more, he’s using the opposite field more (27.5% of the balls he hit against left-handed pitching went the opposite way in 2014, plummeted to 22.1% in 2015, and went back up to a healthier 27.9% in 2016 thus far).

Perhaps most importantly, he’s decreased the amount of soft contact (Soft%) he’s made (26.3% in 2014, 20.7% in 2015, and 15.3% in 2016), while improving the amount of hard contact (Hard%) he’s made (21.3% in 2014, 25.5% in 2015, and now a robust 33.3% in 2016). It’s not rocket science, hit the ball in play and hit it hard, you’ll usually get results (BABIP be damned!). He’s become a well above average hitter against left-handed pitching.

Here are his heat maps, provided by FanGraphs from 2015 and 2016 (since 2015 was his worst season against left-handed pitching and 2016 has been, by far, his best).

Here's 2015

And 2016

You can see he's improved on that pitch down and in, a pitch that's generally in the wheelhouse for a left-handed hitter, along with pitches in on the hands/in the middle of the plate and pitches away/outside of the zone in the middle of the plate. The most important thing is that he improves on pitches inside the zone, he still struggles with pitches high-and-away and high-and-inside, but he's still limiting where pitchers can throw him. That's important. Kole's even been a better player against left-handed pitching than he has right-handed pitching, his OPS is nearly .040 higher (.792 vs. LHP and .760 vs. RHP). But don't ask Kole how it's happening.

"Getting luckier, I guess," Calhoun said. "Same approach. I haven’t changed my way of going about it."

There is also a small-sample size factor with the statistics. Calhoun had just 200 at-bats against lefties last season, so each hit was worth five points of batting average.

"If you get five more hits to drop in, now you’re having a great season," Calhoun said. "If five of those get caught, now it looks like a terrible season against lefties."

Kole's main issues this year have been his weird home/road splits (.223 /.298/.355/.654 at home vs. .305/.383/.491 on the road) and his second half has seen his OPS drop .086 points (.801 down to .715). His defense, for whatever reason, has also taken a hit. Using the defensive rating on FanGraphs, a blanket term for defensive metrics that works like WAR, anything above 0.0 is considered above average, using 'fielding and positional adjustment combined', Kole's is at 0.2. While that's above average, it's a far cry from his whopping 6.6 rating in 2015 when he won his first career Gold Glove Award, and more in-line with his 2014 season when it was at 0.3. It's still above average, but not league leader good.

Even with his less favorable defensive ratings, Kole's been consistently about a 4 fWAR (FanGraphs WAR module) player, while his rWAR's (Baseball-References WAR module) been a bit up-and-down (4.0 in 2014, 3.0 in 2015, and 2.7 thus far). Regardless, doing that on a consistent basis makes you a very valuable ballplayer, especially when you consider the fact that he's about to undergo only his second time through arbitration which makes him "cheap" in a baseball sense.

The soon-to-be 29-year old could potentially be in-line for an extension this offseason and is one of the few players on the roster that should hold down a position for the forseeable future. There aren't a tremendous amount of guys on the team that you can say will be around when Billy Eppler attempts to do a rebuild-on-the-fly in order to build a stronger foundation underneath Mike Trout, Kole is one of those players, and his ability to get on base and score is part of what makes the lineup formidable. Just ask Kole.

"That was one of my goals coming into the season, trying to get on base and set the table" Calhoun said. "That’s working out well."

That's exactly what he's done this season. He's improved his on-base percentage from .308 to .346 and shaved off a healthy 6.7% on his K rate. Big part of the reason the Angels' offense went from bottom-of-the-league in 2015, to a slightly above average lineup in 2016. He'll join a core of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, CJ Cron, Andrelton Simmons, Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs, a healthy Andrew Heaney/Nick Tropeano, Cam Bedrosian, and, fingers croessed, Alex Meyer in hopes of getting the franchise heading back into contention. We'll have plenty of time to discuss how to do this exactly, but it feels comforting knowing that we don't have to worry about right field for a while.

(Side notes: a majority of this was typed up before the game last night when Kole and the Angels faced a lefty in Ariel Miranda, Kole was 1-2 with 2 BB's on the night, and while not all against a lefty, it shows his continued improvement. One last side note, I'm on the legacy format, the old format, and for whatever reason, it won't let me indent any of the paragraphs. It's just as frustrating for me as it is for you).