The Mariners add an insurance plan for their outfield

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a pretty quiet off-season in Seattle. The Mariners got things going fairly quickly, trading for Teoscar Hernández and Kolten Wong to fill in the gaps left by a few departing free agents, but things slowed down after that. They’ve brought in a few veterans to offer a bit of depth, but otherwise largely bet on a repeat of last year’s success and continued growth from their young core. They made another last-minute addition yesterday, signing Kole Calhoun to a minor-league contract with a spring training invite.

Bringing in an 11-year veteran like Calhoun is the kind of move many teams make in the spring, but they rarely work for the player involved. Most ball clubs are content to roll out the internal depth they already have rather than vacating a 40-man roster spot to add a player on a minor league deal. But every now and then, during spring training, a veteran shows that he has just enough in the tank to break camp on opening day.

If you squint, you can see how Calhoun could be primed for a bounce back season in 2023. A longtime Angel, he really started struggling during his final seasons in Anaheim. From 2017-19 he put on a 94 wRC+ and amassed a 3.5 WAR, with a career-high 33 home runs in his final season for Los Angeles. He moved to free agency with the Diamondbacks the following year and produced a career-high 125 wRC+ and 1.5 WAR in the shortened season. However, the past two years have not been good to him. A recurring hamstring injury interrupted most of his 2021 season and his production plummeted last year after signing a one-year deal with Rangers with his wRC+ falling to a career low of 67.

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If you look at his underlying batted data, you’ll see that Calhoun really didn’t deserve such rough results with his in-game balls. A simple look at his expected Statcast stats tells most of the story: His expected batting average was .223 and his expected slugging percentage was .382, 27, and 52 points higher, respectively, than what he actually achieved. This underperformance placed them 13th and 15th in the league among qualified batters. A look at his batted-ball peripherals tells an even more interesting story:

Kole Calhoun, Batted Ball Peripherals

Years EV 95EV FB+LD EV Barrel% Hard Hit% 2015-19 88.7 110.3 92.7 7.1% 2020 89.0 105.0 11.8% 38.5 108.0 94.0 6.3% 2022 90.9 104.9 9.8% 48.2%

Last year, Calhoun increased his hard hit rate by 9.3 points, the largest year-over-year increase among all hitters with at least 400 plate appearances in 2022. He also saw significant improvements in his exit speeds, regardless of whether you calculate a straight average, taking only its elevated contact or looking at its exit velocity in the 95th percentile. After overcoming the injuries that hampered him a few years ago, he was able to hit the ball with the same confidence he had in his stellar 2020 season. That kind of batting quality should have yielded much better results when the ball went into the game was brought.

Perhaps one of the reasons he’s struggled to find success is that he’s gotten quite lucky over the past few seasons. In 2020, his pull rate hit a career high of 59.0%, and while it hasn’t been that high since, he was still among the leaders in pulled contact over the past year. As a result, opposing defenses used displacement against him in 93.4% of his plate appearances last year, the seventh-highest displacement rate in the majors. The defensive shift restrictions won’t be a silver bullet for all of his batted ball troubles, but you’d expect at least a couple more groundballs to sneak through the right flank without a third defender in shallow right field.

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However, this is where the good news ends. The main reason Calhoun’s overall output fell so sharply was that his record discipline was collapsing. His pursuit rate, contact rate, and swinging strike rate were all the worst of his career, resulting in a 10-point increase in strikeout rate. Despite making loud contact when passing the ball, he just wasn’t putting his racquet on the ball often enough. Calhoun has had a solid approach on the plate in the past; In the three seasons leading up to 2022, he had a 24.3% strikeout rate and a 10.8% walk rate.

Instead of sticking with his sophisticated aggression, he’s increased his overall swing rate every year since 2020. Last year it was up to 53%, and when a lot more of those swings come on out-of-zone places and end up touching air, it’s a fast slide toward disaster. If you’re grasping at straws, Calhoun improved his plate discipline metrics towards the end of the season, dropping his swing rate to around 45% and his pursuit rate below 30%.

The chances that Calhoun will dress up in Northwest Teal on March 30th are pretty slim. The Mariners have installed Julio Rodríguez and Hernández in center and right field and have a handful of options for deployment in left field, including Jarred Kelenic, AJ Pollock, Sam Haggerty and Dylan Moore. They lost a potential chunk of depth when Taylor Trammell broke his hamate bone during spring practice; He will be out for at least seven weeks. Haggerty and Moore are both also recovering from off-season surgeries, although they appear to be on track to be ready to contribute by opening day. The loss of Trammell, albeit temporary, likely opened up an opportunity for Calhoun to prove he’s still got something in the tank.

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There’s also the question of whether Kelenic will ever be ready to take on a full-time role with the majors. He’s got the talent and the tools, but he just hasn’t been able to translate them into consistent major league success. He made some subtle adjustments in September and is working to build on them this offseason. When he reported for camp this spring, the Mariners were thrilled with the work he had put into addressing issues in his swing. He’s still fighting for a spot on the Big League list, though he’d have to have an absolutely dismal spring for the Mariners to break camp without him on the 26-man roster.

That means Calhoun really needs to prove he can contribute as a backup outfielder and possibly a part-time hitter. If the contact quality holds up and his plate discipline is back up to his career norms, there’s a shot. And even if he doesn’t make the M’s Opening Day list, he could go down Matt Carpenter’s route and make a difference mid-season elsewhere.