With astronomical asking prices for the likes of Bryan Reynolds on the trade market and merely average production available in free agency at this point of the offseason, the Yankees have a solid case to stick with their internal options for left field to begin the 2023 season. That doesn’t mean, however, that they can’t stockpile depth.
If their current options fall through — if Aaron Hicks’ health falters and/or Oswaldo Cabrera can’t make good on his limited track record of major league success — too far in advance of the trade deadline, it helps to have a cache of veterans on hand who can step into the fold in a pinch. This was likely the thinking behind the Yanks’ recent signings of Rafael Ortega and Billy McKinney, two players with solid minor league numbers (featuring Triple-A slashes of .294/.368/.447 and .271/.348/.511 in 2231 and 992 plate appearances, respectively) who have shuttled back and forth between the junior and senior circuits routinely over the past several years.
The other, higher-risk higher-reward option is to try and catch lightning in a bottle. That was probably why the Yankees inked Willie Calhoun, a former top prospect who has yet to make good on his pedigree. Sure, McKinney was a first-round pick himself, but he graduated as an unranked prospect with a mere 40+ future value according to FanGraphs. Meanwhile, Calhoun was the 82nd-ranked prospect and graded out at a 50 FV. Calhoun has historically torched minors pitching, to the tune of a .290/.359/.493 Triple-A slash in 1444 trips to the plate, but he is a serious liability in the field, lending him a worse major league WAR mark than either Ortega or McKinney. While he has a lower floor due to the holes in his glove, if Calhoun can tap into his potential with the bat the Yankees might even have a left field logjam on their hands.
But there’s another Calhoun I want to focus on today: Kole. He doesn’t fall neatly into either the veteran-depth or lightning-in-a-bottle categories, which alone might make him a good add in the sense that the Yankees would be diversifying their risk portfolios. Specifically, Calhoun has a much better major league track record than any of the aforementioned players, putting up three straight three-win seasons from 2014-2016. But he’s easily the oldest at 35 and is coming off of his worst offensive and defensive showing to date. Why, you might be wondering, should the Yankees be interested in him at all?
Here’s one simple reason, in image form:
Both diagrams show all of Calhoun’s batted balls last year between a launch angle of 20 and 50 degrees. The diagram on the left, however, shows Calhoun’s flys against the backdrop of Yankee Stadium, while the one on the right shows his flys superimposed onto the Rangers’ Globe Life field. Simply put, if Calhoun had played every game in the Bronx last year, at least six outs (up to around 10 depending on the height of his wall-scrapers) and three doubles (up to five) would have turned into homers. To Globe Life’s credit, about half of those 15 would’ve gone out there too (they were probably snatched up in away games last year), but the short porch in the Bronx clearly elevates a handful of even Globe Life flyouts into homers.
Let’s imagine that, instead of in Arlington, Calhoun played half of his games in the Bronx in 2022. Turning even five of his flyouts and two of his doubles into homers would have elevated his slash from a paltry .196/.257/.330 to a more palatable .209/.269/.392. But that’s not the only advantage Calhoun would enjoy in Yankee Stadium in 2023.
Among the 593 players with at least 50 plate appearances in 2022, Calhoun was the fifth-most shifted against; according to Baseball Savant, he faced a shift in 93.4 percent of his trips to the plate. Among the remaining free agents, only Rougned Odor (a second baseman) faced a higher percentage, and by a mere 0.4 percent at that.
Not all lefty pull-hitters will see batting average gains without the shift. But there is reason to believe that Calhoun will be one of the bigger beneficiaries. For starters, he hits grounders at around a league-average clip—his 38 percent rate in 2022 (career 41.1 percent) fell just below the 42.9 percent average. He hits his grounders hard, too: 39.2 percent of them had an exit velocity of at least 95 mph last year, a mark that tied him for 84th of the 373 hitters (31st of 155 lefties) with at least 50 grounders last year. The thing is, all but one of those Calhoun grounders (evidently, one that had an exit velo below 95) was shifted against, so his BABIP of .155 on grounders tied for 357th (tied for 148th among lefties). But even among the 44 lefties who hit at least 25 95+ mph grounders into the shift last year, Calhoun’s .194 BABIP on those grounders was paltry, tying him for 38th in that group. It seems defenses really had him played perfectly.
The league average BABIP for lefties on hard-hit grounders into the shift was .292 in 2022, nearly 100 points higher than Calhoun’s. So even if defenses try some kind of shift against Calhoun that remains legal under the ban, like bringing the left fielder in to play a short right, his misfortune is unlikely to continue to the degree that it did last year. His unluckiness on grounders brought his overall BABIP in 2022 down to .263, 20 points beneath his career mark despite what was easily a career-high hard-hit rate (across all batted ball types) of 48.2 percent. He seemingly traded in some whiffs for harder contact, and if he keeps up that strategy, it could finally pay off come 2023 without the shift.
So let’s add 20 points to Calhoun’s BABIP (i.e., turn five of his outs into singles) in anticipation of some better fortune sans shift. All of a sudden, his Yankee Stadium-aided line is approaching league average at .222/.281/.405. If he maintains the hard-hit gains, it could be even better. With a Gold Glove to his name, if Calhoun can break even with the bat, he might surpass the Yankees’ other depth options and warrants a speculative add.