Sunday, August 10, 2014

Coghlan's Comeback

Coghlan's been on base a lot lately (CSN Chicago)
Remember Chris Coghlan?

Until about a week ago, I'd completely forgotten the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year. After looking at his recent track record, it's not hard to see why.

In the four years between his rookie season and this one, he batted .242/.307/.352 with 12 home runs and 70 RBI in just over 1,000 plate appearances. Across 265 games he put up a 79 OPS+ and was worth -1.4 fWAR. Injuries played a big part in that, robbing him of almost the entire second half of his sophomore season (knee surgery), nearly 60 percent of his 2011  (inflammation in the same knee), and almost three months last year (lower back strain). In this regard he was like the National League equivalent of Grady Sizemore; an outfielder who'd shown tons of promise early in his career only to see his prime years ruined by injuries.

Still, the fact remains that when Coghlan was healthy enough to play during those years, he wasn't very good. So it came as no surprise that the Marlins, the only team Coghlan had ever known, non-tendered him last winter. It was time. Even bad teams like the Marlins can't afford to waste a roster space on a corner outfielder in his late 20s who can't hit, run, or field. With young Christian Yelich showing promise and ready to replace him, Miami had to cut Coghlan loose. No regrets and no hard feelings.

Closing in on 30, beaten down by injuries and five years removed his last (and only) good season, Coghlan looked like he was going to be remembered as one of those Rookies of the Year who fell off the map, a one-hit wonder whose best season just happened to come at the beginning of a career that, for whatever reason (injuries, failure to make adjustments, bad luck) never panned out. Added to the list of vaguely familiar names like Angel Berroa, Bobby Crosby, and Jason Jennings, recent Rookie of the Year recipients nobody remembers.

The rebuilding Cubs took a flier on him, giving him a minor league deal with an invitation to Spring Training. He wasn't on the big league roster when camp broke and was optioned to Triple-A Iowa, where he got on base a good amount (.379 OBP) but failed to hit a home run in 24 games there. He was basically Daniel Nava.

So it was somewhat surprising when the Cubs called him up in early May. Initially Coghlan played sparingly, limited to pinch-hitting duty and the occasional start. He began receiving regular at-bats in June and became more comfortable at the plate as a result. His batting line rose steadily throughout the month, from .139/.184/.139 on the first to .204/.281/.330 by the end of June.

In July, with the Cubbies no longer in contention, Coghlan began to shine. He hit safely in 13 of 14 games before the All-Star Break, catching fire and becoming a mainstay in Chicago's lineup. His power, dormant for so long, emerged as well with eight doubles and three homers.
Coghlan continued raking after the break, notching hits in 14 of 17 games to open the second half and raising his batting line all the way up to .302/.382/.498 after a 3-for-3 effort on August 6th.

It's been far and away Coghlan's best prolonged stretch of hitting since he batted .321/.390/.460 as a 24 year-old rookie in 2009. Rick Renteria, the Cubs manager, has responded by batting him leadoff, using Coghlan's on-base skills to jumpstart a lineup that doesn't have much offense outside of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo (much like how John Farrell's been batting Brock Holt leadoff to try to spark an otherwise lifeless Red Sox lineup). With Coghlan notching 13 multi-hit games and reaching base more than 46 percent of the time since the calendar flipped to July, scoring 23 times as a result, the move has paid off. He's setting the table and giving the guys behind him lots of opportunities to drive in runs, which is all anyone can really ask of a leadoff man.

Coghlan's unexpected comeback has been of the better stories in baseball lately, seeing as how he appeared to be out of a job not too long ago. A career-best walk rate and improved strikeout rate have fueled his success along with the highest HR/FB rate of his career and a more balanced batted ball distribution. His .337 BABiP is significantly better than average but not out of whack with his .320 career rate, though his .413 rate since the start of July screams small sample fluke. Accordingly, neither Steamer nor ZiPS expect the 29 year-old to keep hitting this way much longer. Both predict that his OPS to fall about 50 points between now and the end of the season, but neither one projects him to totally fall apart, either.

That's because for the first time in half a decade, Chris Coghlan's a legitimately good baseball player again.

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