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Projecting Chris Coghlan

Chris Coghlan has been a big topic with the Marlins this season. So far, Coghlan has delivered an excellent OBP but minimal power, the kind of numbers you’d like out of a second baseman but not out of a left fielder. But what we’ve seen from him has been limited, so I’d like to try and figure a little bit about what Coghlan has done and what we can expect to see.

Chris Coghlan was drafted initially out of high school in the 18th round out of East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, Fl, by the Diamondbacks in 2003. However, he chose to attend the University of Mississippi. The Marlins drafted him in the supplemental first round by the Marlins in 2006. Since then, the last three seasons he’s been ranked as the ninth-best prospect in the Marlins organization by Baseball America. Here’s what John Sickels, one of the more respected sources for minor league rankings/scouting, said of Coghlan in his 2009 Marlins Top 20 list:

9) Chris Coghlan, 2B, Grade B-: Nice steady contact hitter, won’t be a star but should have a long career.

Steady, but not so intriguing, as we all sort of saw Coghlan when he first came up this year. Sickels labels him as a contact hitter, and we know that contact hitters in this league have a hard time establishing themselves without other skills. Coghlan does seem to have some speed (speed score in the 6′s for much of his minor league career) and an impressive plate patience (BB% in the 10-12% region for much of his minor league career), so he has a very prototypical “good leadoff man” profile.

How has that translated so far this year against Major League pitching? Not so well, I’d say. The contact portion hasn’t kicked in, as Coghlan has only a .244 batting average. Of course, batting average has as much to do with a player’s singles rate as anything else, and Coghlan has only 234 plate appearances in the majors this season, so such estimations would be unfair to him. His walk rate, however, has been steady with his career walk rates in the minors, a positive sign to see a young player continue his patient approach at the plate despite moving up from the AA/AAA level to the big leagues. His speed hasn’t been of much use yet, but this aspect of his game can come and go and is less important than his work at the plate.

I brought up a point about whether or not some of his statistics so far in the majors are significant. Since Coghlan just arrived, it is somewhat difficult to forecast his future performance on the back of 234 PA’s. Does he really lack any power? Is this his supposed contact? A lot of these answers would be a bit vague, but luckiyl for us, Pizza Cutter over at Statistically Speaking has done an excellent split-half reliability study on when stats become reliable indicators. The important statistics of note:

50 PA – swing percentage

100 PA – contact rate, response bias (both just missed at 50… the real number is probably around 70)

150 PA – K rate, line drive rate, pitches/PA

200 PA – BB rate, grounder rate, GB/FB ratio

250 PA – flyball rate

300 PA – HR rate, HR/FB

350 PA – sensitivity

500 PA – OBP, SLG, OPS, 1B rate, popup rate

550 PA – ISO

I implore readers to take a look at the whole piece, even if you have difficulty following some of the statistics study (I did, but I’m trying). It really is a great read, one of the best of the year in my opinion.

That being said, Coghlan has enough plate appearances to tell us a few things about what he may be like as a major leaguer at this point of his career. With 230 PA’s, we can say that his Swing%, Contact%, K%, LD%, pitches/PA, BB%, GB%, GB/FB ratio, and possibly his FB% are good representations of his play for the rest of the season. With that in mind, I checked the FanGraphs leaderboards and looked for some similar comps in these statistics. I started with batted ball profiles, since these are the least in a player’s control and thus are more likely to go through regression than more controllable aspects like BB% or Swing%. Here is a list displaying Coghlan with a few comparables (comps) from this season.

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In the list are a few good comps and not so good comps based on batted ball data. On the high end you have Joe Mauer, who has built up some pop after being an amazingly consistent contact hitter with excellent plate discipline for the last few years. On the low end you have Willie Bloomquist. Enough said.

Having a list of comps now, let’s take a look at their plate patience data.

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Here the data gets a bit murky in terms of comparable players. In terms of pitches seen per plate appearance and Swing%, Mauer seems to fit the bill, as Mauer is the only other player besides Coghlan on this list to walk in over 10% of his plate appearances and see over four pitches per appearance; no other player breaks an 8% walk rate and 3.8 pitches/PA. It’s also interesting to note that the two players who were a bit further from Coghlan’s batted ball numbers, Ivan Rodriguez and Mark Teahen, ended up with the lowest contact rates in the sample of players. Likely this was just coincidence though.

With the data not terribly substantial, I reveresed the order in which I sifted through players. This time around, I sampled players with similar Swing% and Contact% numbers, since these stabilize more quickly and are more telling of a player’s performance. Also, since these numbers are based more on a player’s decisions at the plate, similarities may better yield comparable numbers since the players involved will ahve comparable plate approaches. Here’s the list, which includes Mauer from the previous list as someone to keep an eye on.

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This list contains a few interesting names as well, among them fellow Marlins starter John Baker, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, and Tampa Bay All-Star Ben Zobrist. Though I didn’t order the list based on parameteres other than Swing% and Contact%. the pitches/PA numbers agreed very well with each other (standard deviation of 0.12), which shouldn’t surprise anyone given that a lower Swing% would naturally lead to more pitches seen. Only one player on the list here posted a walk rate underneath 10%, while five of the eight players listed posted strikeout rates above 20%, Coghlan included. This also makes intuitive sense, as given an average distribution of pitches in and out of the zone, seeing more pitches would naturally lead to seeing more taken balls and strikes.

Let’s take a look at the batted ball data now.

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Now we have some more interesting results. Of the players listed here, the closest in batted ball rates to Coghlan’s numbers are a slew of catchers in Baker, Mauer, and Martin. What can we tell from each of their seasons about how Coghlan can project? I can’t say too much, honestly. Each player has hit over 50% of their balls in play on their ground, but they also wildy differ in power numbers because of their HR/FB. Only one of the three, Martin, has reached a point where the home run-related numbers (HR/FB, HR%) can be considered useful as a projection tool. Martin has struggled to keep his power up and has seen his power decline. Coghlan’s HR/FB and HR/BIA (home runs/balls in air) are more similar to Martin’s numbers this season than they are to Baker’s and Mauer’s, so it might be reasonable to think that Coghlan’s power numbers won’t be increasing any time soon this season.

Coghlan and Martin have swung and made contact at close to the same rates. In fact, they’ve also put the ball in play at about the same rate; Martin has put 53.5% of balls on which he made contact into play, while Coghlan has put 51.6% of those into play. The number Martin has posted so far this year represents a career low, so you could expect perhaps some regression to his norm of around 55%. Coghlan has witnessed a drastic drop in from 60% in Triple A this year to 51.6% in the majors, but this is to be expected given the adjustment from the minors to the big leagues. If we figure he’ll be able to put more of those balls into play, at along the rate that Martin does, he’ll be able to produce more numbers akin to Martin’s.

But is that a good thing considering how poorly Martin has played this year? Both players have almost identical wOBA’s up to this point in the season, and their wOBA’s are below average. Well, Martin is expected to return to form in terms of his power numbers, but can we expect such a change for Chris Coghlan? Well, Coghlan’s minor league numbers have shown similar levels of power, and at age 25 he isn’t likely to develop newfound power any time soon. So while we may expect an increase in contact numbers, which will ocme given enough time in the majors and some luck, and the development of his game similar to Russell Martin’s in that sense, we cannot project the sort of power that Martin has shown.

Rather, we should expect Coghlan’s career to develop into that of one Angels All-Star Chone Figgins. Throughout his career,  Figgins has shown a contact rate in the high 80% and a swing rate in the low 40% to high 30% region, similar to Coghlan’s numbers. In addition, in his last three years, Figgins has shown an improved walk rate up into the 12% range while maintaining a strikeout rate in the high teens. This is the type of hitter Chris Coghlan needs to be to be a successful major leaguer. Figgins doesn’t derive a whole lot of value from his glove, though he has the versatility to play multiple positions. He’s a below average outfielder but has found himself to be slightly above average at third base. Coghlan is beginning to develop into a below average left fielder who likely has average quality at either third or second base (we haven’t seen much, but I haven’t heard bad things about his defense yet). The difference between Figgins and Coghlan right now is their batted ball profile.

Figgins career LD/GB/FB rates: 23.7%/42.2%/34.1%

The difference between having a batting average/singles rate to compliment a selective plate approach that yields more walks and trips on base can have a great impact on a hitter that lacks the power tool. Figgins career ISO is .098, and Coghlan profiles to have that kind of power. With some improved contact and a position, ideally in the infield, to occupy and strengthen on, Coghlan could approach the type of production that Figgins has shown throughout his career. With good speed and no power, Figgins has carved out a seven-year career so far worth around 16 wins, good for about 2.3 wins a year. That’s an above average player, nothing flashy, but solid and productive. If the Marlins can settle Coghlan into a position in the infield, he could be worth around 2-2.5 wins per season above replacement and be on the hook for little to no money for the next six years. This could leave Coghlan as an integral part of a Marlins club for a while, at least serving as a stopgap for younger players coming up in the minors.

We should temper our expectations for Chris, since he’s not the best talent in the farm and is already almost a finished product. However, we can indeed expect some slight adjustments in his contact rates and, if he can continue to show the plate discipline he displayed in the minors, he could become a solid player like Figgins has been for the Angels. However, if he cannot develop any of the gap power he has shown in flashes this season, he may turn out to be a Juan Pierre type of player who needs to a plus defender to retain value.

Topics: Chone Figgins, Chris Coghlan, Joe Mauer, Miami Marlins, Russell Martin

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