Rookies of the Year have a mixed record of success after their first season. Some, like Albert Pujols, Justin Verlander, and Ryan Braun, go on to have many productive seasons and great careers. Others, like Bobby Crosby, Dontrelle Willis, and Angel Berroa collect their trophy and promptly crater. It’s too early in Chris Coghlan’s career to unceremoniously drop him in that second category just yet, but his wRC+ in 2012 was five. That’s it, just five, or the equivalent of 95 percent below league average, so he was certainly headed in the direction of obscurity. Recently, however, not only has Coghlan (ESPN: 6.7 percent owned; Yahoo!: 3 percent owned) received consistent playing time in a way he hadn’t in previous seasons, he has been hitting the cover off the ball.
Since he started receiving consistent starts on May 18, Coghlan hit .390/.438/.627 with a home run and eight RBI. The fact that Coghlan’s great line is built on a totally unsustainable .390 BABIP should surprise no one, since it’s virtually impossible to hit over .400 without some help from the luck dragon, but what is somewhat perplexing is what’s underpinning his inflated BABIP.
It’s all good and well to say that Coghlan will regress, and I agree that he will, but this isn’t a simple case of a groundball hitter finding holes in a defense. Coghlan has a line drive percentage of nearly 28 percent for the season, which includes his terrible month of April when he hit .180/.241/.240. He hit a much-improved .322/.385/.542 in May due in no small part to a league-best 38.6 percent line drive rate. There’s no record of Coghlan making a major swing change, but a May 13 piece in the Miami Herald noted that the Marlins were hoping to see a more aggressive approach at the plate from Coghlan, a change that would help explain a career-high 22 percent strikeout rate.
Part of the reason Coghlan is striking out so much is that his swinging strike rate has jumped from a career rate of 7.1 percent to his current all-time high of 9.5 percent. He’s swinging at about his career rate, but making contact at rate both well below his career rate of 83 percent and below the current league average of 79 percent. If he continues this duality, making contact with just 77 percent of pitches yet having a large percentage of that contact go for hits, I’ll be worried. However, if he drags his contact rate back up towards his career average as the regression kicks in, it may soften the blow of a few of those hits not falling in.
I’m largely unconcerned with Coghlan’s playing time right now. The plan for the Marlins was always to platoon him with Justin Ruggiano until one proved they couldn’t hack it, and with Ruggiano hitting just .208/.284/.388, he would seem to fit the definition. Even if Mike Redmond decides he wants Ruggiano to stay in the lineup or Giancarlo Stanton returns, Coghlan will see time at third base, could float back to second, or even pick up time at first base. There are very few players the Marlins flat out won’t move to make room for Coghlan if he continues to hit.
Even with secure playing time, there’s enough about Coghlan that frightens me that I’m not recommending him as a pick up in leagues of 12 teams or fewer just yet, though anyone in need of quick average boost could do far worse. Players in leagues with exceptionally deep benches would do well to stash him for the time being. If he continues to hit well and drive in the occasional run, he’s likely to end up with near league-average value, but if he starts stealing bases like he did in the minors, he’ll be much stronger option than that. Additional positional eligibility, which I believe he’ll get sooner rather than later, also helps raise his value and could make him valuable as trade bait.
There’s more than an element of buying on spec here, I’ll freely admit that, but Coghlan has shown the ability to produce value in the majors and may be starting to do it again. His BABIP will drop, but his career mark of .322 tells me that it well could settle around .350 if he continues to slash line drives at anything close to his current rate. The big things to watch are his strikeout rate and his contact rate; if he starts to make additional contact, then he’ll be better able to survive regression by putting an increased number of balls in play.
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