The Texas Rangers aren’t last in the American League, but they’re close, and they decided to close out their April with a surprising bit of drama: the demotion, and seeming alienation, of designated hitter Willie Calhoun.
In a candid interview with The Athletic’s Levi Weaver, Calhoun vented his frustration with the Rangers, declaring, “I do want to be traded.” He elaborated: “I don’t agree with some of the hitting philosophies.” Calling himself a “line-drive/doubles guy,” Calhoun said, “That’s who I was in the minor leagues. They knew that, but they thought they could turn me into a [power] guy.”
If this is truly the end for Calhoun’s struggles in Arlington, he mainly battled two problems during his time here. One of them is just plain bad luck. The other is that the Rangers either never knew how to develop Calhoun, or never found him receptive to their ideas.
Let’s start with the bad luck. Calhoun has done a lot right this year—it just didn’t come out that way in the end. He’s hitting balls as hard as ever, with an average exit velocity around 90 miles per hour and a hard-hit percentage of 36.8 percent. (Some context: Aaron Judge is way up over 60 percent, but Calhoun is ahead of Texas teammates Nathaniel Lowe, Mitch Garver, Marcus Semien, and Charlie Culberson.) Calhoun grounded out several times last week, but overall, he’s hitting fewer ground balls than he did in 2020 or 2021. He’s pulled the ball slightly more, too. Even better, he’s walking more often than he strikes out and swinging at fewer balls (18 percent of the time, compared to 29 percent last year).
But as they say, you have to hit them where they ain’t. When Calhoun puts the ball in play, he’s batting a miserable .135, a stat for which league average is about .290. There are really only three ways to have such a poor batting average on balls in play (BABIP): tap lots of weak grounders, hit loads of homers, or have miserable luck. The first is what you’d get if you asked, say, a D Magazine writer to pinch-hit. The second situation describes a guy like Joey Gallo, whose BABIP was .250 across his two 40-homer Rangers seasons. But miserable luck? That might be Willie Calhoun’s 2022 in a nutshell.
In fact, the bad luck goes even further back. Calhoun suffered a broken jaw in March 2020 when he took a fastball to the face and a fractured ulna when he got hit by another pitch in 2021. You could forgive him for flinching.
Now that the Rangers’ relationship with Calhoun has turned sour, we have to ask if the bad luck doesn’t go back further still, to the organization which took him on. Calhoun told Weaver that he’s a line-drive hitter who likes to spray contact to all fields. The Rangers, however, wanted him to become a pull-hitting slugger, depositing every ball in the right-field bleachers. That disagreement caused frustrations for a guy who is, at 5-foot-8, closer to José Altuve’s size than Gallo’s. Calhoun doesn’t want to be a guy he isn’t, and at age 27, it’s getting late to learn a whole new approach.
But the Rangers have a point, too. Manager Chris Woodward’s comments about the demotion would apply to either a power hitter or a line-drive guy: “Obviously, he’s still walking, he’s not chasing; some of the peripherals have been good. But the swing itself—we’ve asked him to work a little bit more vertical with his swing. I don’t want to get too technical, but some of the old over-the-top out-around swings are showing up a lot more, especially on pitches in the heart of the plate.”
That tweak would likely help Calhoun meet his own goals, too. He’s hit a large number of infield popups throughout his career, including one in his seemingly final Rangers game this past Friday. And MLB has its share of failed players who needed to make a swing adjustment but stubbornly never did. Exhibit A: The Tragedy of Eric Hosmer, 2018–21.
Maybe another organization will help Texas’ wayward DH find his doubles and become a line-drive machine. Maybe Calhoun’s confidence—he told Weaver he can be a .300 hitter “in a different uniform”—is justified. But the reverse could happen, too. Maybe defenses have adjusted to his preferred style, and maybe his almost-there frustrations will continue.
Somebody should find out soon. The perfect place for Calhoun to find his groove would be a scuffling last-place squad with no real DH. A low-pressure environment where he can work with coaches to develop his line-drive skills while facing big-league pitching. A team that nobody expects to win anything, so they have plenty of time to help a potential slugger work his way out of some bad luck and make a little tweak. A team that has a great big opening for a .300 hitter. A team so bad, it can experiment with a lightweight contact hitter who can’t play defense.
Do we know any teams like that? Oh, wait.