Some players mash for a living, others ride the pine, while some seem to dance gingerly in the middle. This is the story of Chris Coghlan: utility bencher for the Chicago Cubs.
In a quest to exercise the irrelevant and banal, I’ve taken notes watching Cubs’ OF platooner Chris Coghlan and his apparent bad luck this season. Most writers would never take the time to analyse a -0.1 WAR, 69 wRC+ player because they’re blatantly average, but I figured that Coghlan, the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year, deserves a fair chance.
Turns out the results are actually quite interesting:
Coghlan is slashing a mediocre .202/.265/.372, and even then, the only thing saving him from total annihilation is that “tolerable at best” slugging percentage. From a numbers standpoint, Coghlan is a hot mess but from watching him take at bats, his performance seems to be a little bit unlucky. His K and BB peripherals are on track with league and career norms and even a quick reference of dependent variables seem to indicate that Coghlan is being screwed out of results somewhere.
So where are the hits hiding?
The easiest solution is to immediately jump on the BABIP train, which does hold a certain amount of merit, but can often hide the true result. For the sake of argument however, we’re diving in. Coghlan’s BABIP is a petty .232 which falls well below team and league averages. Interestingly enough, he’s paired that with a 32.9% hard contact rate. This would normally inflate a BABIP rate but it seems to be doing the complete opposite to Coghlan.
How is this possible?
It may not be the only answer, but a glaring smoking gun is Coghlan’s supremely inflated fly ball percentage which is currently 13.9% above his career average. Normally those who hit a third of their total balls in play hard tend to get them to leave the ball park — Chris Coghlan is not that man. Since 2009, he’s only hit 33 total home runs and it’s not suggested that he’ll be converting to a power hitting outfielder anytime soon. Put simply, Coghlan is putting loft in his swing without the muscle to cash HRs. It’s an awful habit and one that results in a lot of warning track power.
To be fair, Coghlan has already put up 3 HRs in 31 games in 2015 which puts him on pace to best his total HR/season record by about mid-July. Wrigley field also offers little help in April and May as it’s typically chilly and windy, which can cripple power numbers. It’s worth noting, but it’s not the role the Cubs want Coghlan to play.
What’s more alarming is the decline in total line drives (-3.1%/2015) and ground balls (-9.2%/2015) and the relation between these figures and offensive indicators. As his GB/FB ratio moves to the sub 1 range, the numbers go sour very quickly, even with his few HR skewing his wOBA totals for 2015 (sample size alert).
If Coghlan could pair his hard contact rate with more line drives and even ground balls, it could easily translate to more XBH without integrating the associated risks of flying out on homerun swings, fixing his offensive metrics.
Now I’m not saying that ground balls win baseball games – it’s ultimately a steady ~25% line drive rate that promotes the offense. It’s a similar problem which Coghlan experienced in 2012, posting a meager 13.4 LD% for a .180 wOBA, which is horrendous.
There’s another layer to this story as well: Coghlan is taking more defensive swings than ever before. He’s making contact with 84.7% of pitches in the strike zone but still missing on almost 10% of his cuts. This significantly changes how pitchers will attack Coghlan, often not hesitating to challenge him with heat or breaking pitches inside knowing that he’s likely to fly out or whiff. Sadly, he’s feeding his own demise by doing so.
While it’s still early in the season, it seems that Coghlan is not exactly regressing, but needs to adapt his approach at the plate. He seems intent on developing himself in to some sort of power hitter this season as he’s been hitting the ball to the pull side, indicating that he’s trying to be slightly ahead of pitches. It’s obvious that he’s ignoring placement hitting and it has been affecting his results negatively.
A simple adjustment with his swing and his goals during ABs should solve a few problems. He could then return to being a relatively effective utility player; but if his current trends are any indication, it will be a challenge.