MLB: Chicago Cubs at Philadelphia Phillies

Grounded: Coghlan Might Be Neutralized Throughout Playoffs

At the beginning of this season, I was a staunch advocate of accelerating Kyle Schwarber’s ascendance to the Cubs’ big-league roster and everyday lineup. Schwarber put up monster numbers in the minor leagues, making even Kris Bryant’s dominance look pedestrian at certain developmental mile markers, and while there was an argument for allowing his defensive skills behind the plate to develop slowly in the high minors, I believed the Cubs needed his bat. My reasoning? Chris Coghlan just isn’t the high-level asset who should be blocking a player like Schwarber when a team is trying to win something.

Even as Schwarber came up and crushed the ball, Coghlan slowly won me over with his impressive improvements on defense in left field, his willingness and ability to move to other spots, and a steady approach that produced results remarkable for their consistency. With his underrated veteran presence in the clubhouse, he seemed to have won a full-time role against right-handed hurlers. Here are all the games, from the beginning of the season through August 31st, in which the Cubs faced a right-handed opposing starter and Coghlan was left off the lineup card:

  • May 2nd
  • May 22nd
  • May 29th
  • June 9th

That’s it. Coghlan played left field, then a fair amount of second base, then some right field, but one thing he didn’t do, in any game against a right-hander for over three months, was play cheerleader.

That changed on September 19th, when Joe Maddon left Coghlan out of the lineup in favor of Chris Denorfia. No big deal, though: the Cubs were facing Michael Wacha and his reverse platoon split. Coghlan simply got Danks Theoried out of the mix that day.

In the final fortnight of the season, though, Maddon sat Coghlan against a right-hander four more times—three times in favor of Jorge Soler, and once in order to fit Tommy La Stella onto the infield. It was enough to cause Coghlan to speak with Cubs reporter Jesse Rogers about his frustration.

“I expect to play every day,” [Coghlan] said. “[Maddon has] already made his decision I’m not going to play against lefties, so I’m content in that. But if a right-hander is pitching I expect to play that night. So when it’s not there [his name in the lineup], yeah, it is a disappointment.”

“If you look at numbers at the end of the day, I do feel like I’ve produced enough to earn that. Whether that happens or not, I don’t know. That’s all up to Joe … I do know with Joe, when you’re not playing, from the third inning on you have to be ready.”

This isn’t the first time Coghlan has mentioned that he wishes he played more, including against left-handed starters. Here he is with David Laurila of FanGraphs in July:

“One thing that frustrates me is the limited opportunities for lefties to face lefties. The game is turning into so much of a platoon that it’s actually bad for the players. If you talk to any hitter, whether he’s a righty or a lefty, he likes to face same-sided pitchers every once in awhile. It keeps you honest and allows you to lock back in. Facing lefties helps (a left-handed hitter) stay short and simple, and not be so aggressive, which you’re more likely to be against righties.”

Coghlan rode the bench during the Wild Card Game on Wednesday night, too, though, and now, something is officially up. We can safely presume it’s not an injury; Coghlan wouldn’t be publicly beefing about playing time if he were unable to go. We know it’s not poor performance: Coghlan has been just as good and just as consistent recently as he was throughout the season.

Chris Coghlan, Recent Offensive Performance

Last 49 PA 7 13 .250 .367 .525
Last 101 PA 15 23 .250 .366 .429
Last 149 PA 19 35 .250 .349 .500
Last 198 PA 22 39 .247 .333 .471

These are meant to approximate last 50, 100, 150, 200 PA. I drew cutoffs between games, rather than hashing out PA within a game to get to the round numbers.

That leaves one possibility: matchup vulnerability. At some point, Maddon and his staff decided that Coghlan is a poor fit for the team’s lineup in the playoffs, against the specific opponents they’ll face there. And you know what? They’re right.

Here’s the first important fact to know: the Cubs’ next two (likely) playoff opponents—the Cardinals, who are locked in, and the Dodgers, who the Cubs might face—are among the most grounder-heavy pitching staffs in baseball.

Highest Team Ground-Ball Rate for Pitchers, 2015

Team Ground Ball %
Pittsburgh Pirates 52.2
Los Angeles Dodgers 51.9
St. Louis Cardinals 49.8
Colorado Rockies 49.6
Houston Astros 48.6

The second important fact: Coghlan is one of the Cubs’ most grounder-prone hitters.

Lowest Ground-Ball Rate for Batters, Chicago Cubs, 2015 (Min. 75 PA)

Player Ground Ball %
Kris Bryant 34.5
David Ross 35.6
Anthony Rizzo 35.7
Matt Szczur 37.3
Tommy La Stella 37.7
Javier Baez 38.5
Miguel Montero 42.1
Jorge Soler 42.3
Addison Russell 42.9
Kyle Schwarber 43.0
Dexter Fowler 44.3
Chris Coghlan 46.3
Austin Jackson 50.9
Jonathan Herrera 52.3
Chris Denorfia 53.5
Starlin Castro 54.9

Why does that matter? Well, for two reasons:

  1. Fly-ball hitters are the best hitters in general, but against ground-ball pitchers, the advantage they hold over ground-ball hitters is especially wide.
  2. Here’s Coghlan in the piece linked above, from July, on his approach to hitting: “If I hit a ground ball, it’s a mis-hit. I want to hit the ball in the air and drive it. That’s the only way you’re going to slug. … I want to look for a pitch I can elevate and do damage to. I want line drives in the gaps and in the seats.” We should all applaud his mentality, but if he’s hitting this many grounders while striving to lift the ball, that’s a problem. That means a good pitcher, executing their pitch, is going to have a good chance of getting Coghlan to do something he doesn’t want to do at the plate.

The combination of Coghlan’s tendencies and the way batted-ball platooning works should help you guess how Coghlan does against pitchers with various batted-ball tendencies, but in case you can’t work it out, here are those splits:

Chris Coghlan, vs. Ground-Ball/Fly-Ball Pitchers, 2015

Fly-Ball 195 .257 .330 .457 113
Avg. Fly/Grd. 168 .274 .369 .514 147
Ground-Ball 140 .210 .321 .336 86

For the unitiated, sOPS+ is simply the player’s OPS in that split divided by the league’s OPS in that split, adjusted for the run environments in which the PA in that split took place. Over 100 is above average.

At a team level, as that individual list above might indicate, the Cubs actually match up very well with these ground-ball staffs, because they hit it on the ground less often than just about anyone:

Lowest Batting Ground-Ball Rates, MLB, 2015

Team Ground Ball %
Houston Astros 42.8
New York Yankees 43.1
New York Mets 43.3
Tampa Bay Rays 44.3
Detroit Tigers 44.5
Chicago Cubs 44.5
Baltimore Orioles 44.7

For Coghlan, though, it means less potential impact, and therefore, less playing time. That’s not to mention that the Cardinals will run out lefty Jaime Garcia in Game Two of the Division Series, relegating Coghlan to bench duty, anyway. Coghlan will certainly be in the lineup whenever Lance Lynn starts, but both Wacha (remember the reverse split) and Garcia will probably chase him to the bench for platoon reasons, and John Lackey (the already-announced Game One Cardinals starter) has an above-average ground-ball rate. Coghlan has been vital to the Cubs this season, and might come up with a huge hit before all is said and done. Because of the matchups the Cubs face, though, don’t expect him to have a major role unless and until the Cubs claim their first pennant in 70 years.

Lead photo courtesy Bill Streicher—USA Today Sports.

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