One of the few surprise moves of the 2017 trade deadline was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ acquisition of Rangers’ ace pitcher Yu Darvish. Los Angeles, a team with a projected playoff rotation that includes two of the top four ERAs in baseball in Kershaw and Wood, as well tremendous depth with names like Maeda, McCarthy and Ryu, didn’t seem like a candidate to acquire a top flight starter. But the team with an MLB-leading 74-31 record saw an opportunity to get better, and they pounced, sending a package of prospects to Texas in return for Darvish, an impending free agent.
That package of prospects included second baseman Willie Calhoun, right-handed pitcher AJ Alexy and third baseman Brandon Davis. While Alexy is an intriguing arm and Davis boasts tremendous power potential, the the jewel of the trade is Calhoun, MLB.com’s 69th ranked prospect in baseball.
A short history
The 22-year old Calhoun was born and raised in Vallejo, California, situated about 20 miles of north of Oakland. Originally drafted out of high school by the Tampa Rays in 2013, Calhoun neglected to sign and played one year at University of Arizona before moving on to JuCo ball at Yavapai College. In the midst of a dominant season with Yavapai, the Dodgers selected Willie in the fourth round of the 2015 draft.
Since then Calhoun has made quick work of minor league pitching, utilizing plus-plus bat speed and a sweet lefty swing to hit a ton of doubles and home runs across every minor league level. The up and coming power hitter, despite being a California native, likely welcomes the trade to Texas, as he was blocked in AAA by Los Angeles’ bevy of MLB talent.
The most interesting aspect about Calhoun is his size. Listed at 5’8″, 225lbs, his body dimensions project more like an NFL scat-back…or perhaps your portly college buddy who drinks too many PBRs on the weekends. I haven’t seen Calhoun with his shirt off, so I don’t really know whether he’s corpulent or ripped, but either way, stocky 5’8″ power hitters don’t come along too often.
Dude can mash
Calhoun made his minor league debut with the A-ball Great Lakes Loons shortly after the 2015 draft and slugged a .931 OPS and 174 wRC+ in his first 66 professional plate appearances. That performance earned him a mid-August call-up to the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of high-A, where Calhoun did much of the same and actually improved on his power output, increasing his XBH/AB from 6.6% to 13.7%.
2016 marked Calhoun’s first full season of professional ball and the results were impressive. He whacked 53 extra-base hits, including 27 home runs, across 560 plate appearances for the the Tulsa Drillers in the typically pitcher-friendly AA Texas League. Calhoun’s performance didn’t go unnoticed, resulting in a trip to the Texas League All-Star Game and the All-Star Futures Game.
Without much left to prove in AA, Calhoun was assigned to AAA and made the short trip from Tulsa to the Oklahoma City Dodgers of the Pacific Coast League. The PCL, known as a hitters paradise due to its surplus of ballparks located in high-elevation, arid locales, was the perfect place for Calhoun to ply his violently efficient home-run swing. Through 414 plate appearances, Calhoun has slugged 27 home runs and 52 extra-base hits, resulting in a career-high HR/AB rate to 6.2% and XBH/AB rate to 13.9%. His .298 / .357 / .574 triple slash underscores his dominance, as does his .931 OPS and 131 wRC+.
What makes him ‘Slick Willie’
There’s little doubt that Willie Calhoun can do unsavory things to a baseball when he makes contact. But then again, so can a lot of players in the minor leagues. What makes him stand out more than the others?
Number one: his age. The average age of a PCL player is 27, while Calhoun is 22. To put up slugging statistics like Calhoun has over his past two years of minor league ball is extremely impressive for a player his age. Calhoun’s .574 slugging percentage in AAA this season ranks 7th among PCL players under the age of 25 (sidebar: Ryan McMahon, previously discussed on FunGraphs, is pretty freaking good), with Calhoun slotting as the second youngest player in the top 10.
Beyond his pure ability to hit a baseball far, Calhoun is a very advanced hitter at the plate. Typically power hitters, especially young power hitters, strike out a lot. That makes sense, since hitting the ball really far often entails “going for it” on each hack, which can lead to a lot of swings and misses. But Calhoun’s 2017 strikeout rate of 11.8% is by far the lowest among his under-25 PCL slugging compatriots, and his 0.74 walk to strikeout ratio is by far the highest.
This combination of power and plate discipline in the body of a 22-year old in AAA is exceedingly rare. Generally speaking, players in AAA with good plate discipline are slap hitters with some doubles power. The guys who belt 30 home runs each season are either 27-years old and/or strike out over 20% of the time. To illustrate, Calhoun’s BB/K ratio of 0.74 is 19th best in the PCL, with only one player above him boasting a slugging percentage above .500 (Ketel Marte at .514, a full 60 points below Calhoun’s .574).
What does this all mean? That there is a very good chance that Calhoun’s approach translates to the MLB. Texas Ranger fans should be very excited.
Except for one thing…
While Calhoun is a near perfect player at the plate, he does possess some flaws, most notably his defense. Despite possessing a 5’8″ frame that is typically shared by slick-fielding utility infielders, Calhoun is reportedly an awful defensive player. His stocky frame nukes his agility while his 30-grade speed score reduces his range. Meanwhile his hands, while capable of propelling a bat at insane speeds through the strike zone, struggle with fielding balls and making throws to first.
Calhoun has primarily played second base in the minors, with a little bit of left field sprinkled in for good measure. While accurate minor league fielding data is difficult to ascertain, we can get a sense of Calhoun’s fielding incompetence by looking at his errors and fielding percentage. For some perspective, the median MLB fielding percentage at second base is .981. Calhoun posted rates ranging from .935 to .956 in 2015 and 2016, which would rank below the Tampa Rays’ last-ranked .964 fielding percentage in the MLB this season.
However, it seems like Calhoun has made significant strides in 2017. He’s cut his errors down from 21 to six, and his fielding percentage is up to .980. While fielding percentage ignores all the balls that Calhoun can’t get to because of his lack of range, it genuinely seems like he’s improved his sure-handedness this season.
Calhoun’s fielding issues make his ascent to the MLB a bit murkier. Texas already has Rougned Odor signed long-term at second base, so Calhoun has little chance of making a splash at the keystone for the Rangers in the near future. Rangers’ General Manager Jon Daniels mentioned that Calhoun will play more outfield for Texas’ AAA affiliate in Round Rock, so perhaps that’s how he cracks ‘The Show’.
Fortunately, the American League also features a DH slot, so if all else fails Calhoun seems to have the type of plus bat that will play for a position-less player. Either way, expect Calhoun in Texas in short order with his rare brand of prodigious power and plate discipline.