When Dexter Fowler shocked the baseball world and returned to the Cubs during Spring Training in late February, it created a glut in the Cubs’ outfield. Jason Heyward was the premier offseason free agent signing, he would start in right field. Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber—the hotshot kids—needed regular playing time. Fowler would of course start in center field. There were fringe 25-man roster types like Matt Szczur and Matt Murton that created quality depth. Finally, you had Chris Coghlan. They simply couldn’t have that many outfielders on one team, so someone had to go. Sure enough, before news of Fowler’s return could even be reported, Coghlan had been dealt to the Oakland Athletics for Aaron Brooks. The return for Coghlan was deemed appropriately tepid, seemingly an afterthought in all of the buzz surrounding Fowler’s return.
However, there was something that may have gotten lost in all of the dizziness of the moment. Coghlan had been really solid for the Cubs in both 2014 and 2015, collecting 5.7 WARP in the process. Some writers and fans asked, was this someone that really should have been dumped simply because the roster became crowded? Wasn’t he a key contributor to the surprising 2015 team? He did hit third in the lineup in 36 games, after all. Were Schwarber and Soler proven enough to shed a proven veteran this quickly? Why was he expendable now? In many ways, it was personally disappointing for me to see him dealt, and after all of the excitement of the 2015 season, it had to be tough for Coghlan to head to a last place team, as well.
Hindsight can sometimes be even murkier than the present, as these questions became even more pertinent in the wake of a season-ending injury to Schwarber, another hamstring injury for Soler, a scary incident involving a diving play into a wall for Heyward, and finally a recent hamstring injury to Fowler. The confluence of events led the front office to reevaluate their outfield situation and determine they needed some veteran help. They turned to the venerable Coghlan, the player who had been so steady for them in the past, and more importantly a guy who they knew would fit in perfectly with the existing clubhouse culture. If it seemed like a natural fit to negotiate with Billy Beane to fill yet another hole, that’s because it was. There was, however, one small catch: Coghlan was performing terribly in Oakland, posting an unthinkable triple slash of .146/.215/.232 over the season’s first two months. So where was the solid line-drive hitting outfielder that played so well for the Cubs? Let’s take a look at a few charts to see if we can uncover anything that may have led the Cubs’ scouts to believing they could help Coghlan turn his season around:
It’s relatively plain to see that Coghlan was still hitting the ball hard in the middle and inner portions of the zone, but was struggling with anything in the lower third. Further, his typically excellent coverage of the outer half of the plate seemed to have disappeared, suggesting his approach may have changed in an attempt to break out of his season-long slump. Let’s check the spray charts for further evidence:
When Coghlan is going well, he has a fairly even disbursement of contact to the outfield, with a tendency to hit hard grounders and line drives right down the first base line. He utilizes the opposite field efficiently, making hard contact to left field on pitches in the middle-out and lower portions of the strike zone. He doesn’t use the gaps often, instead relying on a yank-or-dive approach that generates line-to-line contact, but rarely anything in-between. He hits a healthy amount of ground balls and line drives, while limiting fly balls as often as possible. He hits for enough power to be dangerous, but the “warning track” nature of his power means he is usually better served by hitting the ball on a line somewhere.
In 2014 and 2015, he did all of these things relatively well, hitting to his strengths and forcing the ball kids down the line to scamper out of their seats often. In 2014, he hit 209 grounders/liners, and just 96 fly balls. His batting average on the former was .423, while just .221 on contact in the air. 2015 was a similar story, though he fared somewhat better on fly balls, as 16 of them flew out of the park for home runs. Even still, he hit just .267 on them, compared to .342 on grounders/liners. An interesting wrinkle in these trends, Coghlan was far more successful when pulling the ball in 2014 (.375 to right, .306 to left), but far better going the other way in 2015 (.367 to left, .272 to right). This suggests that when his approach generates line drives, he’s better pulling the ball, but when he’s hitting more fly balls, he does better slapping the ball to left field.
Fast-forward to 2016, the first thing that jumps out is his huge 27 percent strikeout rate, especially when compared to the 18 percent he tallied in both 2014 and 2015. Beyond that, he’s gotten way too reliant on hitting the ball to the opposite field, and it isn’t working. His line drives are now going to left and left-center at an 82 percent rate—compared to 66 percent in 2014—while everything pulled has been on the ground. Remember, when his approach is oriented around line drives, history shows he needs to pull the ball to be successful. Further exacerbating his issues, when he has hit the ball on the ground, it has been with soft or medium contact nearly 92 percent of the time. This has led to an .054 batting average on grounders, giving a devastating blow to his overall results. It’s tempting to look at his .170 BABIP while with the A’s as an explanation for his struggles, but I believe the batted-ball information paints a more accurate picture when attempting to diagnose the problem.
To boil it all down, he needs to begin elevating the ball to right field more often, and he needs to stop hitting so many fly balls to left field. For a guy like Coghlan, he should be pulling breaking and offspeed stuff down the line with authority, and going the other way with fastballs thrown middle-out. If opposing pitchers are shown that hitters are leaning over the plate with in over-compensating inside-out approach, they will reduce the number of fastballs thrown and increase off-speed offerings. This will result in a plethora of both softly pulled grounders (out in front), and weak contact the other way (timed well, but with little bat speed and no velocity assistance from the pitch). Did scouting reports on Coghlan filter down to opposing pitchers quickly enough to take advantage of this? You bet they did:
Coghlan has seen a six percent reduction in the amount of fastballs offered to him this year compared to last year, while seeing an aggressive spike in offspeed and breaking pitches. Scouting reports have picked up on his tendency to over-compensate towards left field, and pitchers are abusing him for his weakness. Although I’m #notascout, I have been unable to recognize any noticeable deficiencies or changes in Coghlan’s swing mechanics during his time in Oakland, so my eyes are telling me this is mostly approach related.
My personal feeling is that Theo Epstein’s scouts were telling him that physically and mechanically Coghlan was fine, but that the game between his ears had been infiltrated with static, and he needed a refresher course on his approach at the plate. The early returns from his reunion with the Cubs have been acceptable (.250/.423/.350), so let’s hope Coghlan’s time in Oakland was simply a negative 60-day blip on his career radar. Here’s hoping he can figure his approach out sooner than later, as even though he was deemed redundant this spring, the reality of Fowler, Soler, Schwarber and La Stella all hitting the DL means that Coghlan now means more to the Cubs than ever.
Lead photo courtesy Dale Zanine—USA Today Sports.