Willie Calhoun was up and down between the majors and Triple-A quite a few times between 2017 and the first half of 2019. Last June, he got his long-awaited opportunity to play every day, emerging as the Rangers’ starting left fielder. He made the most of it at the plate, hitting .269/.323/.524 (110 wRC+) with 21 home runs in 337 plate appearances. Yet even those solid results seem to belie an impressive, exceedingly rare skillset. Very few players can match Calhoun’s combination of bat-to-ball skills and power.
Last year, Calhoun made contact on 85.4% of his swings; he swung and missed at just 7.2% of total pitches he saw, per Fangraphs. Both those marks are well better than the respective league averages of 76.2% and 11.1%. That places Calhoun among the top 30 or 40 contact hitters in the game- very good, if not quite exceptional. However, unlike many of the game’s bat control artists, Calhoun is also capable of doing damage. His 89.7 MPH average exit velocity would have placed him in the 63rd percentile leaguewide had he amassed enough plate appearances to qualify, per Statcast.
Combining elite bat-to-ball skills and above-average power on contact is tougher than one might expect. In 2019, only D.J. LeMahieu, Nick Markakis, Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and Justin Turner had both a lower swinging strike rate and higher average exit velocity than did Calhoun (minimum 300 plate appearances). That’s an eye-catching assortment of names. It’s not a guarantee that Calhoun’s about to emerge as one of the game’s best hitters; Markakis, for instance, was merely average last year. But it does at least confirm Calhoun has a pair of key traits in common with many of the game’s best bats.
Maybe it isn’t surprising Calhoun seems to have massive offensive upside. He raked throughout his minor-league career, and scouts have long lauded his potential at the plate. There’s a reason Calhoun, while a prospect, headlined Texas’ return package for prime Yu Darvish despite concerns about his defense (which have also ultimately proven true). He’s a LF/DH at this point, so he’ll have to rake to warrant continued playing time.
To unlock the next gear offensively, the 25-year-old could stand to be a bit more selective. It seems reasonable to project that coming. After all, he’s only been an everyday big leaguer for half a season. He won’t ever be confused for Joey Votto, but given his other attributes, he needn’t be. Even a small progression in pitch selection could go a long way.
Calhoun should get every opportunity to cement himself as a middle-of-the-order force in Texas. While a scary hit-by-pitch fractured his jaw earlier this month, the most recent indication is that he’s recovering well.