The Worst May of All Time, And What it Means

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 09: Kole Calhoun
ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 09: Kole Calhoun /

Kole Calhoun just finish posting the worst month of May in baseball history.

“Wait a second!” you might say, “How’s that even possible!” After all, there’s been over a century of baseball to consider, a whole lot of terrible hitters have had some terrible months of May, and Kole Calhoun has never been a terrible hitter. From the moment he came up to stay with the big club in 2013 through the end of last season, Calhoun has posted a completely respectable .262/.330/.428 career slash line, good for a 111 OPS+. Basically, he’s been a bit better than an above-average hitter for most of his career. He’s also won a Gold Glove. Put that together, and you get a pretty darn good player.

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And then this year happened. Calhoun had a big game on Opening Day, going 3-5 with a homer and a triple in Oakland… and then proceeded to hit .149/.175/.149 through the end of April. See how that slugging percentage matches his batting average? That’s right, zero extra base hits in that stretch. In fact, it would take 36 more games after Opening Day before Calhoun would get another extra-base hit.

It seemed impossible for Calhoun to swing any worse than he did in April, but it’s happened. In 83 plate appearances in May, Kole Calhoun went 8-for-74. He hit .108/.193/.122, managing just one extra-base hit while grounding into five double plays. Overall on the season, he’s hitting .145/.195/.179. He’s also more double plays than he has extra bases. Among players with over 150 plate appearances this season, Calhoun’s .374 OPS is 81 points lower than the second-lowest total total and 109 points lower than the third lowest at .483. No other everyday player has an OPS under .550.

Defensive shifts play a large part in explaining Calhoun’s diminishing production. According to MLB’s Statcast, three years ago, opposing defenses shifted on Calhoun 23% of the time; this year,  opponents do it for nearly 70% of his plate appearances. They do it because, as Calhoun’s spray chart shows, he extremely consistent about where he puts the ball in play. The vast majority of Calhoun’s grounders go to the right side, and defenses have been stacking the deck, shifting shortstops to the right of second base, and moving second basemen deep into the hole in right. The majority of Calhoun’s flyballs go to center and left, and defensive outfields have been shading him very hard that way, with right fielders in particular playing way off the line. Everything Calhoun hits is into the teeth of the defense.

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But wait, there’s more. The defensive shifting impact wouldn’t be so bad he were at least squaring the ball up from time to time, but his line drive rate over the past three years has gone from 31% to just 21% — in other words, he’s hitting 32% few line drives. Not only that, when you look at Calhoun’s heat maps, you can see exactly why all this is happening. In 2016, Calhoun was hitting inside, belt-high strikes at a .408 clip, but last year that dropped to .302. Belt-high fastballs on the inside part of the plate should be candy to a major league hitter — if you can get around on one. This season, Kole Calhoun is hitting .174 on inside belt-high strikes.

Kole Calhoun can’t hit a big league fastball anymore.

The fascinating car-crash element to Calhoun’s 2018 season becomes more sobering when taken in a broader context. It feels like he just dropped off a cliff this season, but his decline actually began happening last season. Early in 2017, Calhoun had a stretch of 44 games and 189 plate appearances between mid-April to the end of May where he hit just .185/.270/.280, then later on in July, he had a 22 game stretch of .167/.253/.308. In his last 30 games of 2017, Calhoun hit .238/.357/.381, with walks and the occasional homer propped up a plummeting batting average. Even when he wasn’t mired in a prolonged slump, he was no longer able to make good contact.

I believe he knows he can’t hit anymore. After the struggles of last season, he came into 2018 with a different stance and a leg kick as a timing mechanism that, presumably, helps him generate extra bat speed. He’s swinging at fewer first pitches, just 28% of the time compared to 35%-40%  in the previous three seasons. On 2-0, he only swings 17% of the time — in the previous three seasons, he was a more confident and aggressive hitter, swinging at 32% to 53% of 2-0 offerings. He’s waiting because he’s guessing at pitches and locations. He instinctively knows he’s not going to be able to identify and react for good contact. He knows if he’s not getting his pitch, he’s not going to hit it hard.

Per’s Play Index, the worst batting performances in the month of May, (minimum 75 plate appearances):

Bill Bergen was a deadball-era catcher who was reputed to be a great defender (he once threw out six baserunners in a single game) and may be perhaps the worst hitting regular in baseball history: he holds the record for going hitless in 46 straight at-bats. Lewis Brinson is a highly-touted prospect with the Miami Marlins in his rookie season. Everyone else on the top ten (bottom ten?) is an infielder only around for their glove. Kole Calhoun shouldn’t be on this list. Now, he’s right at the top of it. By OPS, Calhoun had had the worst May in history.

There’s something particularly lurid about digging so deep into his issues, and coming to these ugly conclusions. Perhaps it’s so tough to dump on Calhoun because because shouldn’t be anywhere near the end of the line — he won’t turn 31 until October — and the way he plays defense suggests he’s not dealing with any debilitating injuries. Perhaps it’s because he was 8th round pick who wasn’t highly rated and never made a top prospect list, and through effort and work and determination made himself a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder and a squarely above-average hitter. It’s certainly been hard to watch him making out after soft out every game. Perhaps it’s because it’s so obvious that he’s a guy who obviously, deeply cares about playing hard. When he throws his body on a dive or against the wall for flyballs, or he throws out a guy from right field — which he’s done more often than anyone this season, leading the majors with seven outfield assists — you can see him scream and pump his fist with emotion that only comes from being wholly invested in being a winner. Perhaps it’s simply that he’s another human being, and it’s hard to watch him suffer in the course of our entertainment.

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Whatever the reason, Calhoun’s at-bats have become Sisyphean, as he’s become almost doomed to fail. Mike Scioscia’s done all that a manager can do for him — moving him down, giving him starts, sitting him against lefties — but the harsh truth is that the Angels can’t keep running him out there every night. Unfortunately for the Angels, they also don’t have much else in the way of options. Chris Young can’t play everyday. Michael Hermosillo and Jabari Blash both got cups of coffee and will certainly get another one soon, but bringing them means sending someone down, and Calhoun is long out of options.

Beyond these three, the Angels are basically out of options as well. The team was counting on the outfield of Mike Trout, Justin Upton, and Calhoun to play everyday and play well. Thus far, only Trout’s held up his end of the bargain. Realistically, the only real option the Angels have is to hope that Calhoun pulls out of his nosedive, that his adjustments start working, and that he starts resembling a reasonable major league hitter again, if only for a few more months. The truth, as hard and cruel as it may be, is that Calhoun simply won’t be able to do it. The truth maybe that Kole Calhoun is done.

*  *  *

Right before the original column was written, the Angels announced that Calhoun will be taking a few days off:

It remains to be seen if this oblique strain has been dogging Calhoun since April, or if it’s just a convenient excuse to give him some time off and allow the Angels to send him for extended minor league “rehab” time.