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How a near miss helped Willie Calhoun face his fear of getting injured by another hit by pitch

Calhoun had his jaw and his arm broken in the last two seasons as a result of being hit by left-handed pitchers

ARLINGTON — During Willie Calhoun’s second at-bat Sunday afternoon, lefty John Means came up and in with a 93 mph fastball that whizzed right near his head.

It may have been just what Calhoun needed.

Since suffering a “broken face,” — Calhoun’s description — and a broken arm in a pair of beanings the last two years, Calhoun has not been shy about his battles with PBSD (post-beaning stress disorder). This was his closest call since Kansas City lefty Kris Bubic interrupted his season with a pitch that fractured his left forearm in June. He missed 10 weeks and didn’t return until two weeks ago.

“I kind of had a flashback,” the left-handed hitting Calhoun said. “I was like, ‘OK, I’ve broken my arm and I’ve broken my face,’ so I took a step out, took a deep breath for about five seconds to try to forget it and get back to my same approach.”

Two pitches later: thwack.

A screaming liner to center that left the bat at 96 mph and ended up with Calhoun on second with a double. And another deep breath of relief. It was his first hit against a lefty since his return.

Four innings later, against another lefty, Fernando Abad, Calhoun tripled home two runs on another fastball.

Big steps in his return.

“I really didn’t face many lefties [during a rehab assignment],” Calhoun said. “They have been trying to ease me back in against lefties, and all the guys I’ve faced have been quality lefties. For me to get in there, put a couple of good swings on the ball and get a couple of hits means a lot. It’s something I can build off, especially against lefties. It’s something I can take into the last week.”

And, the Rangers hope, something he can build on this offseason.

Calhoun, who turns 27 in November, needs something to build on after two largely lost seasons because of COVID and the injuries. Since an .848 OPS in 83 games and 309 at-bats in 2019, he has only 340 at-bats over the last two seasons and a .649 OPS to go with it.

He needs something. Calhoun is eligible for salary arbitration this winter, which means his salary is likely to nearly double to somewhere slightly north of $1 million. While the Rangers are likely to tender him a contract, there is no certainty that he has a role on the 2022 team.

Though he’s improved defensively, he remains limited as an outfielder. Without him, the Rangers put together the best outfield defense in the majors, so his defensive liabilities work against him. He profiles best as a DH, but manager Chris Woodward would really like for his DH to have some defensive versatility to maximize the roster. And Calhoun hasn’t dominated right-handed hitting to justify the idea of a platoon situation.

Despite the beanings by lefty Julio Urias in March 2020 and Bubic in June, Calhoun has hit lefties, albeit in very limited at-bats, better than right-handers. He’s hit .274 with a .709 OPS in 80 plate appearances against lefties and .232 with a .633 OPS against right-handers.

What Calhoun does have going for him: He hits the ball hard. According to predictive metrics, and it shouldn’t take advanced metrics to determine this: Hard contact portends to higher batting average.

Calhoun sent the Rangers a reminder over the weekend with six balls that left the bat at 96 mph in 10 at-bats. For the year, the ball has come off Calhoun’s bat at an average of 90.2 mph. Only Nathaniel Lowe (91.2) and Adolis García (91.0) have higher average exit velocities on the current roster. Since returning from the IL, Calhoun is averaging 91.3 mph.

Combine that with a lower than league average strikeout rate (12% for Calhoun vs. 23% for the AL) and there are still reasons to believe he can be a productive player.

“I have high expectations for myself,” Calhoun said. “I know I’ve hit a lot of balls hard. That’s what I need to do. When I get away from my game and try to [chase results], that’s when I start hitting a lot of balls on the ground to the right side. So that’s the only thing for me right now over the last six games: Find the barrel. That’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve come back. I’m happy where I’m at. I want to stay there.”

Find more Rangers coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

In This Story

Evan Grant, Rangers beat writer/insider. Evan has covered the Rangers since 1997. He has twice been named one of the top 10 beat writers in the country by the AP Sports Editors. His passions outside of covering baseball are his wife, Gina, his two step kids, two crazy dogs & barbecue. Let's not discuss the cat. Evan graduated from Georgia State University, but oddly is a Georgia fan.

egrant@dallasnews.com @Evan_P_Grant
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