Willie Calhoun became the featured prospect in the Yu Darvish trade a year ago because the Texas Rangers, and just about everyone who has watched him in the minors, know that he is going to hit big-league pitching.
After a couple of games adjusting from Triple-A pitching, Calhoun is, indeed, hitting. Quite a bit.
But for Calhoun to stick with the Rangers, he must be able to play left field adequately or the Rangers must trade primary designated hitter Shin-Soo Choo. But even if the DH spot unexpectedly opens, Calhoun will still have to play defense on occasion as Choo has done.
Calhoun’s glove was so deficient in spring training that he was sent to minor-league camp in the first round of cuts. His defense was described as “routine” when promoted to start the second half, which suggests he couldn’t even make the plays he was supposed to make four months ago.
The No. 1 rule for a fielder is to make the plays he’s supposed to make. Though he hasn’t been challenged so far since his call-up, Calhoun has been doing what he’s supposed to do.
“You’ve got to be able to do that first,” manager Jeff Banister said. “You can add to that as you go. As he learned the league and learns the hitters, if you pay attention to it, knowledge always helps you get better.”
Calhoun was the left fielder Sunday as the Rangers went for a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. He entered with only 18 chances in the field in 12 games/11 starts, but he hadn’t committed any errors.
His reads and routes have improved, after working in the minors with Round Rock manager Jason Wood and hitting coach Howard Johnson and roving outfield instructor Dwayne Murphy.
Bench coach Don Wakamatsu has picked up the outfield drills since Calhoun joined the Rangers. It’s all paying off.
“That’s something I really worked on in Round Rock, just taking better routes and trying to be more baseball-savvy,” Calhoun said. “More thinking of the play before it happens and just being more aware and more intent out there.”
In fairness to Calhoun, he wasn’t a left fielder until the Rangers acquired him from the Los Angeles Dodgers. He played second base throughout the minors, and the Rangers were prepared for growing pains.
Calhoun had more to learn than he initially thought, from throwing and knowing where to throw to finer details like stride length.
“I’m still getting better out there every day,” he said. “I’m feeling a lot better out there right now.”
Calhoun entered with a five-game hitting streak and with hits in nine of his past 11 games, a .323 stretch that lifted his average to .271. The Rangers wanted to see him give a more professional at-bat and to not be pull happy, and he’s doing that more after an initial adjustment period.
The first three doubles of his career, collected Thursday and Friday, were to the opposite field. He made hitting to left field a priority this season at Round Rock, because “I don’t like teams shifting on me.”
(Maybe that will make a few other light bulbs go off.)
The issue Calhoun faces with the Rangers is a regular spot to play. He was recalled to replace right fielder Nomar Mazara, who remains out with a sprained right thumb. Once that heals enough for him to play, Calhoun will feel a squeeze as Joey Gallo moves back to left field.
But as the Rangers evaluate for the future, they won’t just sit on Calhoun.
The only way he’s going to get better defensively is to continue seeing regular time in the field. Seeing pitches regularly has been behind his surge at the plate.
The defense, though, has been better than it was last season and this spring.
“The biggest thing is the breaks on the ball have been better. It’s noticeable,” Banister said. “He’s gotten to the balls we felt like he could get to. He’s throwing to the right base. It’s noticeable, just based on we haven’t seen anything that would significantly say there hasn’t been improvement.
“What I look at is has he been ready on every pitch? Is he attentive? Is he moving on every pitch? He’s been doing that.”