The Kole Calhoun era has begun in Anaheim. After developing a cult following over the last year and a half, Calhoun is finally getting his first real look at regular playing time. But like anything that was once cool and underground, it looks like going mainstream could spoil it.
I'm not here to blame you for jumping on the Calhoun bandwagon. I am one of the Calhoun hipsters myself (I liked him before it was cool). There is a lot to like with the kid. He has an advanced approach at the plate. He's shown some real pop. He can well. He's a quality defender with a strong arm. He plays all out, all the time. And, let's be honest, he's also a ginger who is built like a fire hydrant and I mean that in nothing but a positive way.
What he isn't is a top prospect. By and large, the prospect gurus like him as a second division starter or a bench player. With all the good but not great tools Calhoun has, it seems like the prospect gurus are undervaluing Calhoun, but they know these things better than you or I. What we see is maybe the odd game on MiLB.tv or a live game or two when Calhoun was in our local area during his minor league days. The rest of our exposure to Kole is his minor league numbers, which is where his legend really began to grow.
Coming out of Arizona State, Calhoun performed well in Rookie ball before jumping to High-A ball in 2011 where he dominated. That domination continued this year and last with the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees. Over the course of his minor league career, Calhoun had 1,578 plate appearances in which he posted an outstanding .317/.402/.541 slash line. Just to put that in perspective, Mike Trout's career line in the minors was .342/.425/.516. This is where the Calhoun hysteria stems from. That is also where the problem begins.
Quite obviously, Calhoun is no Mike Trout. Nobody is Mike Trout (except maybe Superman, or is it the other way around?). That slash line might be similar, but the circumstances are not.
While Trout played like a men amongst boys in the minors, Calhoun literally was. In fact, when Calhoun had his first minor league at-bat, he was already older than Mike Trout is today. Kole was a senior coming out of a Division-I college thrust into rookie ball where he just laid waste to a bunch of teenagers. If he didn't crush them, it would've been a disappointment. At his next stop in Inland Empire, he was on the older end of the spectrum for the California League. Add to that the hitter friendly environment of the Cal League and it was very conducive to him posting strong numbers. The same could be said and then some when Calhoun leapfrogged Double-A and went to the hitter's haven that is Salt Lake and the Pacific Coast League.
What that means is all those gaudy numbers that have been making you and me drool were compiled in environments where Kole was either more advanced than most of his competition and/or played in ballparks known for grossly inflating offensive production. We never got the baseline that we use for so many Angel hitting prospects of going to the pitcher friendly Dickey-Stephens Park in Double-A Arkansas. The deck has ALWAYS been stacked in his favor. To his credit, he has always taken full advantage but it has robbed us of the frame of reference we need to be able to judge his potential rationally.
Part of me thinks though that being rational is not even possible with Calhoun. With this farm system so starved for anything resembling big league talent, it is hard not go nuts over a guy like him. The scouts may not be drooling over him but the stats give us hope that maybe the scouts are a little off base.
It is important to remember though that the whole stat-focused mindset cuts both ways. The projection systems aren't exactly in love with Kole either. Granted, those systems aren't typically that great of translating a guy's minor league performance to the majors, but they aren't useless at it either.
If we look at ZiPS rest of season projections, Kole projects out at .236/.298/.375 which translates to .297 wOBA and 89 wRC+.
PECOTA is only slightly rosier with Calhoun projecting at .253/.318/.413 which equates to a .269 TAv.
In other words, the projection systems think Calhoun is between a bench player and second division starter… just like the scouts do. Sorry to rain on your parade, but the two worlds have converged and come to a consensus of mediocrity.
Not to go all touchy feely, gut instinct on you, but part of me feels like Calhoun is falling victim to the same trappings that we often see in the NBA Draft. It seems like every year there is some upper classmen who comes out in the draft after a very successful college career, but because he is older than the freshmen, he is considered to have already reached his ceiling. There is no flash, nothing to dream on. Inevitably, that upper classmen goes on to become a reliable quality starter for years and years and analysts look back on that draft in hindsight and wonder how the hell everyone in the lottery passed on him.
Calhoun is that upper classmen. He was practically a finished product the day he was drafted. Scouts didn't drool over him because they didn't see how he could get better but they also couldn't ever get a great sense of just how good he was because he was never competing on a level playing field. That's why anytime you read a scouting report on him there is never anything but positive comments about all of his tools and yet the overall conclusion is that he won't be anything special. There just isn't anything "sexy" about him, so the prospect nerds have nothing to hang their hat on. Being a ginger certainly doesn't help. Again, I am not being snide about that. Many scouts have openly professed a bias against red-headed players because there has never been a great player with red hair. It nearly made Clint Frazier's stock in the draft fall this year. No joke.
Maybe that's all for good reason, again those scouts and online prospect gurus are typically very good at what they do. But maybe there is also a reason that even the best prospect experts are wrong on a regular basis. But that would mean that Calhoun is the exception not the rule. So pull for Calhoun if you want. He has all the signs of a possible exception, just don't be surprised if it doesn't work out that way.