Chris Coghlan hasn’t been good since since his debut season in 2009 when he managed to win the Rookie of the Year award. Billed as an elite contact hitter because of his .321 batting average and 13.6% strikeout rate, the Marlins looked like they were developing a top of the order catalyst. His 127 wRC+ was impressive for the 24 year old, and he looked like he could grow into at least league average power. Then the wheels came off.
Coghlan’s 2.5 fWAR debut turned out to be his magnum opus. He followed up with a 0.9 fWAR 2010 and then never put up value better than replacement over the next three years. His career fWAR cumulative total coming into 2014? Just 1.1. He was lost at the plate, watching his strikeouts soar and his grounder heavy approach start to find more infielders than outfield grass. Coghlan was toast.
In hindsight, it isn’t hard to see why he never would put up better numbers than 2009. His average was supported by his .365 BABIP, which was only sustainable if his grounder-oriented approach could avoid the defense. His spray charts clustered around every infield position though, and he saw his luck run out. The former contact darling flailed as he tried to find any remaining shred of success, and his strikeout percentage shot up to 20.1% in 2013 before the Marlins decided they finally had enough of him.
The free agency market has been growing thinner through the years (excluding 2012 and Prince Fielder) but Coghlan’s ROY campaign couldn’t make up for his awful years he put up following it. The only team even bothering to make an offer was the Cubs, an organization who has prided themselves on digging through the scrap heap and hoping to get a hot month or two, then sell high. With nowhere else to turn, both parties agreed on a minor league deal worth $800,000 max with some modest plate appearance bonuses.
Coghlan was nothing special in the minors yet again, posting a 95 wRC+. As his opt-out date drew nearer, Theo Epstein and co. gave him a call-up just to see what could happen. And then, something happened that makes baseball such a beautiful game. Coghlan became good again.
He’s tearing up the NL Central with a 129 wRC+, the best mark of his career. He’s not relying on any BABIP luck this time either, as his 2014 number (.317) is right along his career mark (.316). His batting average is a gentleman’s .275 but where he’s been valuable is a spot no one expected out of him; his power. Thanks to a .477 Slugging%, his ISO is up to a highly fearsome .201. Even though his strikeout rates aren’t as low as before, he’s improved on his 2013 trends to bring it down to 18.1%.
Behind every breakout we find one of two things:
- Considerable amounts of luck
- Real improvements
So how can do we know if he’s good? After all, he’s teased us before. Well, look at his batted ball profile throughout his career, and notice how different he is now.
He’s making up for a lack of average by pounding the ball with authority. Fly balls are significantly better than grounders due to their ability to go for homers and extra base hits. We know that batted ball trends tend to stick early, around 40 or so plate appearances, and Coghlan already has 171. His ability to now get under the baseball is bearing fruit, and he’s even on pace to set a career high in long balls.
Adding fly balls can be a huge driving factor behind rejuvenated players. We see it happen almost every year, with another notable example this year being Ian Kinsler. But not only is Coughlan executing a better swing plane, he’s driving the ball harder as well. He’s not trying to spray the ball all over like in years past, but instead has driven the ball with authority to help keep his power spike.
Pull everything. In a day and age where heavy shifting is no longer frowned upon, and actually encouraged, we don’t see many hitters trying this approach. In fact, we see more hitters trying to learn to go the other way more often. Yet Coghlan’s only path back to relevancy was through added pop, and he needed to be driving pitches to get there, not by just shooting them the other way. Attacking fastballs early, he’s racked up a pitch type value on them of 9.5 runs above average. And even though breakers have given him massive amounts of trouble in his career, he’s been close to average against them now, which helps him see more fastballs (thanks, game theory!).
To further show his breakout is real, there’s a new idea brought up about how we can predict breakouts or believe in them through hot zones. The basic idea is, lefties and righties each have areas of the strike zone that they hit well and poorly. Almost all hitters follow the same pattern, but the good ones are able to do well in the “trouble areas” as determined by handedness and league averages. So by running a query through Coghlan’s PITCHf/x data, we can find where he ranks on these zones by different metrics. Since we’re talking about power, I ran it through SLG. Chris Coghlan, the former ROY who flamed out and busted, ranks 16th best in all of baseball, a huge sign that he’s here to stay.
There’s been a clear change in mindset that’s gone on with Chris Coghlan and his swing. This time, it’s actually working out for the outfielder who’s finally finding relevance again right around his 29th birthday. All the data and evidence is there to believe that Coghlan is more than just a BABIP fluke, or a product of Wrigley. He’s improved in very real areas and it looks like the Cubs have turned yet another scrap heap bargain into a legitimate star.