Chris Coghlan: Finally Relevant Again

For all intents and purposes, Chris Coghlan is having a pretty good season. Drafted in the supplemental first round of the 2006 June amateur draft, Coghlan earned National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2009, hitting .321/.390/.460 with nine home runs and eight stolen bases.

Then he slid into a prolonged funk, floundering for the Marlins (ha… floundering… because the mascot… is a fish… uhhhhhh) before revitalizing his career with the Cubs. After a relatively successful, but still lackluster, 2014 campaign, it seems Coghlan has finally rounded into form in 2015 at the ripe age of 30. Better later than never.

I planned to investigate Coghlan’s success independently. David Laurila, however, transcribed a recent interview with Coghlan during which they talked hitting and posted it yesterday. In it, Coghlan laid bare his philosophy and approach to hitting with refreshing honesty and transparency, creating a unique opportunity to see if Coghlan practices what he preaches as well as how or why it currently works for him.

Note: I omit 2014 statistics in this piece because I want to look at Coghlan during his darkest days (2010 through 2013) and his brightest (2015).

An excerpt from Laurila’s piece by Coghlan on his swing:

My bat angle changes depending on pitch elevation and what the pitch is. I don’t want to take the same swing to every single ball. I don’t want to have the same bat path for a high-and-away fastball as I would for a low-and-away slider. I want to be able to control the entire zone.

Coghlan is a left-handed hitter. Pitchers have consistently pitched Coghlan low and away:

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All in all, an unsurprising statement of fact, given it’s the modus operandi. Now, this is what Coghlan’s contact rate (Contact%) heat maps look like:

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The Coghlan of 2010-13 — we’ll call him Bad Coghlan — Bad Coghlan used to craft his swing to the up-and-in pitch, an approach not entirely conducive to success when pitchers pound the zone down and out. The 2015 Coghlan — Good Coghlan — makes far more contact with low-and-away pitches. Notice the faint red migrating southwest as well as the sizable grey void in the top-right corner. Moreover, he now hits pitches with more authority, regardless of location, as evidenced by his isolated power (ISO) heat map:

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Again, note the southwestern migration pattern of red (plus higher numbers to boot). This transitions somewhat gracefully into another excerpt:

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.

My expected isolated power (xISO) equation validates Good Coghlan: fly ball rate (FB%) and hard-hit rate (Hard%) both correlate positively and strongly with ISO. The ISO GIF above visually corroborates Coghlan’s refreshed approach, but it depicts more the effect than the cause.

A look at Coghlan’s batted ball profile reveals the cause in the form of a career-high fly ball rate (and subsequent career-low ground ball rate, aligning with Good Coghlan’s philosophy), a career-high pull rate (Pull%) and a hard-hit rate bested only by his rookie and 2014 seasons. Coghlan has essentially improved, or at least optimized, every facet of his approach concerned with hitting for power, and it shows in the results.

His approach evolved in more ways than one:

When I was younger, I valued batting average and hits. Now I value slugging and on-base. That’s how you win games. […] That said, I’m still instinctual. I still want to be aggressive. I want to hit every pitch until my eyes tell me otherwise.

The first half of Good Coghlan’s quote is fairly straightforward. The big takeaway here is Good Coghlan’s walk rate (BB%) is almost 35 percent higher than his previous career high, bolstering a once pedestrian on-base percentage (OBP).

Moreover, Coghlan has always seemed to post above-average batting averages on balls in play (BABIP) yet is struggling in that department this season. My expected BABIP (xBABIP) equation pegs Coghlan for a .312 BABIP*; add another five hits and Good Coghlan sits pretty with a .271/.371/.443 batting line. The OBP would represent a career-high, and the .172 ISO already does. (He’ll be hard-pressed to beat 2009’s .321 batting average, however, which was bolstered by a pretty fluky .365 BABIP.)

* I admit Coghlan, a lefty, may suffer from hitting into defensive shifts, thus dampening his BABIP, but I don’t have the data readily available to support such a claim.

The second half of the quote is actually less straightforward. Good Coghlan is aggressive, yes, but it’s a better kind of aggressive now than it used to be: he currently swings at pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) at a career-low rate, according to PitchF/X, corresponding with a career-high swing rate at pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%).

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I’ll be honest: I don’t know exactly how this improvement manifests itself in Good Coghlan’s output. Mostly I just wanted to try to squeeze in one more GIF. But Good Coghlan certainly seems to understand the zone better — the heart of the zone is redder, the outskirts bluer — resulting in not only more free passes but also more swings on better pitches, likely contributing to his improved contact.

Good Coghlan also discusses facing same-side pitchers, about which he quips:

Look at Anthony Rizzo. He stunk against lefties, but they gave him an opportunity because they paid him and wanted him to be an everyday player. Now he’s hitting lefties at a good rate (.940 OPS this season, .928 last year). Why is that happening? Yeah, he’s made some adjustments, but it’s also because they gave him an opportunity.

At the risk of inserting too much personal bias, a manager’s insistence on platooning a hitter based on small sample sizes has always bothered me. Granted, 40 plate appearances with 25 strikeouts strongly indicates ineptitude. Good Coghlan, however, in his mere 27 plate appearances versus left-handed pitchers, has exhibited plate discipline not far worse than his performance versus righties (22.2 K% and 11.1% versus LHP; 17.2 K% and 12.8% versus RHP).

Moreover, of the 16 balls he has put into play versus lefties, he hit 10 in the air (62.5 FB%) and seven with authority (43.8 Hard%). Again, we are talking small samples, but this small sample portends favorable, rather than unfavorable, outcomes. Manager Joe Maddon has benched Coghlan a dozen times for a more favorable platoon matchup, but perhaps it isn’t necessary. Unfortunately, we may never know for sure.

The final verdict: only Good Coghlan knows exactly when his paradigm shift occurred — that is, when he mentally stopped being Bad Coghlan. Good Coghlan, who favors OBP and slugging over batting average, accordingly walks and hits for power more than he ever did. To further laud Good Coghlan, he’s also running more than ever, and he has actually generated positive defensive value for the first time in his career.

For a team loaded with young talent, the Cubs salvaged — or, perhaps, made — an oldie but goodie in Coghlan. Barring injury, he should end the season at least a 3-WAR player — not bad for $2.5 million — with probably 15 homers and steals apiece with a respectable triple-slash line even in shallow leagues.





Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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The Arismendy Projectmember
6 years ago

Not roto-relevant exactly, but Coghlan also seems to have improved his defense considerably with his move to Chicago. He was an absolute butcher in Miami, but UZR thinks he’s been average to excellent over the last 1300 innings in LF for the Cubs. And in my own (admittedly anecdotal) viewings, he seems solid and reliable, if unlikely to ever be in the Gold Glove conversation.

Is this just the natural evolution of his skills, Wrigley Field being easier to navigate (wouldn’t think so with the wind), Cubs coaching staff, or some combo of the above?

Paul
6 years ago

I think saying UZR has rated him average to excellent is misleading, even if it’s true. The sample sizes are still too small to be significant and his DRS numbers are significantly lower.