The turnaround of Willie Calhoun has been entertaining to watch. While many of his star teammates have made trips to the injured list for various reasons, he has stayed on the field. In fact, he has even hit in the middle of the lineup and performed well! Don’t get me wrong, it has been weird to see him batting fourth and fifth on a team with multiple hitters on Hall-of-Fame tracks. But heck, if he is going to continue to put up decent hitting while striking out less than 15 percent of the time, then keep putting him in there!
The fact that the team has been able to get average offense (99 wRC+) out of him on the season is a very positive development. As Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Donaldson, and Harrison Bader have all missed extended time, the Yankees have still stayed afloat in the division and overall playoff picture. Much of that has to do with playing average players instead of downright awful ones. During the team’s struggles in April, Calhoun and others were getting extended playing time and not producing at all. In late May and this month, average hitting from Calhoun and above average hitting from Jake Bauers have helped the team pick up some wins and not fall out of the race! Having decent depth is fantastic when your stars continue to go down.
With that said, I did mention that Calhoun had been bad at one point. The focus for the rest of the piece will be on how he went from being a 47 wRC+ hitter in April, to a 123 wRC+ hitter in May and June. The turnaround has been drastic, and so has his approach. Below is a table summarizing some key changes Calhoun made to flip the script on his slow start:
Calhoun’s Quick Turnaround
In terms of swing decisions, Calhoun made an obvious effort to swing less, and as a result, chase less. As a hitter with decent plate discipline, it makes sense that he would improve upon his poor first month. When watching him, it felt like he was taking too many C and D swings on pitches that were not hittable instead of cutting them out and focusing on A and B swings. He is the type of hitter that tries to fight and do whatever he can to not strike out, so he is going to take a bunch of B swings. But it’s important that you don’t get too swing happy. You need to draw a line somewhere. The Yankees preach a hitting mentality of putting good swings on hittable pitches and letting other ones go. Perhaps, as he gained time with the club, he felt more comfortable adapting that approach and using his hit tool to his advantage, rather feeling forced to put the bat on everything in sight. A lot of this is simple, but sometimes that is exactly what a hitter needs.
He isn’t the type of playing that is going to hit the snot out of the ball. His max exit velocity is in the 53rd percentile, and his xwOBACON is a mere .323. This is a guy who does not have a lot of room for error. I bring that up because of his Vertical Bat Angle (VBA). In case this is your first time seeing me cite the swing measurement, it’s the angle of the player’s bat at impact. 18.4 degrees was the lowest in all of MLB in April. That is not a good thing. There are hardly any good hitters with average VBAs this low. Swinging too flat is a recipe for mishit after mishit or groundball after groundball.
Of course, there is a time and place for when you need a flatter swing, but that was just too darn flat. Not even Giancarlo Stanton (the strongest man in the sport) has a VBA this flat, and he can actually get away with it. By making a six-degree jump, Calhoun was giving himself some more room for error and elevation. His fly ball rate jumped up 15 percentage points from April to May. That’s the difference between eight XBHs and only one. As a soft hitting left-handed hitter, increasing your pull rate and fly ball rate is a perfect recipe for hitting in the Bronx.
This is really a standard improvement to hitting. Make a slight adjustment to your swing because it was way too flat and combine it with better swing decisions. It’s not easy to do so quickly though, which is why it’s even more impressive that Calhoun pulled it off. Do I think his true talent is of a 123 wRC+ hitter? Probably not, but the things people around baseball liked him for as a prospect have been present for over a month now, and it’s been a joy to see.