Chris Coghlan Using Metrics to Become Best Fourth Outfielder in Baseball

Maybe it’s the precipitous statistical drop following a pie-in-the-face gone wrong nearly six years ago. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s so far removed from that 2009 Rookie of the Year campaign that everyone has forgotten about it. And maybe it’s because his defense has made him look like he’s more qualified to patrol a meat counter than an outfield corner. Whatever the reasons behind it, the perception of Chris Coghlan has been a bit skewed over the last couple years.

At best, I’d say the former Marlin is viewed with the light-treading skepticism of a man walking out onto a frozen lake for the first time. There’s this, “yeah, I mean, his numbers are pretty good, but is it real?” sense about what Coghlan’s done over his two seasons in Chicago that leave you wondering whether the results are legit or just another mirage produced when the Cubshine hits the stats just right.

Mirage or no, those stats paint a pretty good picture of what Cogs has done since signing a minor-league deal with the Cubs prior to the 2014 season. All he’s done in Chicago is slash .265/.346/.447 with 25 home runs and a .793 OPS. That line was brought down a bit by his totals this past season, but his 16 home runs equaled his total from the previous four seasons combined (9, 1, 1, 5). Coghlan’s wRC+ marks of 125 and 113 with the Cubs show us a hitter who has been well above average (100).

If we boil things down to fWAR (that’s FanGraphs’ calculation of the catch-all stat), Coghlan’s 3.3 in 2015 ranks him 25th among qualified outfielders, one spot ahead of former(?) teammate Dexter Fowler (3.2). That ranking actually drops to 27th when we include non-qualified hitters, but that’s because Giancarlo Stanton (318) and George Springer (451) missed significant time with injuries. Either way, pretty good company.

With the exception of those two aforementioned players, only 6 of the men listed above Cogs on the list tallied fewer than 600 ABs (WAR): Ender Inciarte – 561 (3.3); Adam Jones – 581 (3.6); David Peralta – 517 (3.7); Michael Brantley – 596 (3.8); Odubel Herrera – 537 (3.9); and Kevin Kiermaier – 535 (5.5). By comparison, Coghlan logged only 503 at-bats last season.

Among that group, Inciarte and Kiermaier are obvious glove-first guys whose value comes almost exclusively from their play in the field. Peralta and Brantley are the opposite, relying on their bats to make up for sub-par defense. Jones and Herrera are both pretty well balanced and have acquitted themselves pretty well in both facets. Then we have Coghlan, a guy who’s routinely been lumped in with the middle pair. Given his improved defensive numbers, though, he’s actually part of the latter group.

While he posted a negative Def (FanGraphs stat that measures overall defensive performance) total in each of his first six seasons, Cogs actually put up a 5.4 last year. Yes, the “-” is missing on purpose. While defensive metrics have yet to achieve the notoriety of their offensive brethren, and with the caveat that it’s a little dicey to base an overall assessment on a single season, the positive spike isn’t necessarily a fluke. Coghlan has worked hard to make improvements to his game, particularly on defense.

He recently spoke with’s Mike Petriello (you should really listen to the podcast, which only runs about 18 minutes) about how he’s been able to use metrics to become a more complete player. Coghlan spoke about how, particularly when he was younger, the focus was all on batting average. But as he learned more about the business of baseball, he realized that teams placed more value on simply getting on base and driving in runs. That may sound elementary, but you you can imagine how a player who has been raised to believe batting average is king might have to make a paradigm shift.

Coghlan talked about being more focused on excelling in areas that help the team to win, not the least of which is defense. While he had always though of himself as a good athlete and capable outfielder, he learned that the metrics didn’t bear that out. Upon finding that the industry viewed him as an average to below-average outfielder, he was spurred to attack his craft with more intent from Day 1 in order to prove that he was indeed the above-average fielder he’d fancied himself. The increased focus, he said, resulted in the significant improvement in his defensive metrics.

This is a great example of the confluence of stats on a page and practical application on the field. Cogs noted that in baseball, as in any business, employees are going to strive to achieve things for which they know they’ll be praised. As baseball teams have shifted value away from batting average to OBP, OPS, and defense — Coghlan said baserunning is the next facet of the game that teams are coming around on — the smart players will adjust their effort to favor those areas.

It was a short interview, but I came away with a new-found respect for the Cubs’ fourth outfielder. So often we find professional athletes who either don’t feel they’ve got anything to learn or who are perhaps unwilling to work to polish aspects of their game that are sub-par. It’s hard to blame them though. I mean, if you were good enough to get to the highest level, you must know what you’re doing. And it’s often easier to just keep working on a strength in order to ensure it’s enough to cover up your weaknesses.

Chris Coghlan, however, has actively chosen to examine his own game and to improve upon his deficiencies. It’s not sexy and he will never be a guy belting 35 homers, but in becoming a more well-rounded player he may have just turned himself into the best extra outfielder in the game (which I suppose would make him the BFoIB). If that sounds extreme, consider that every player listed above Cogs on that WAR list is also listed atop his team’s depth chart.

And you wanna know something really crazy? Coghlan isn’t even listed second at either corner for the Cubs. That’s because the team’s depth chart shows Ben Zobrist right behind both Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Make no mistake, though, Coghlan is the real backup out there. The Cubs really do have an embarrassment of riches at this point, to the extent that it almost seems like a waste to have someone with this much talent — not to mention the self-awareness and humility to leverage it properly — riding the pine.

The more I think about it, the more I’m surprised Coghlan wasn’t moved for a pitcher this offseason. After all, Theo Epstein and Co. have proven quite adept at flipping redundant assets to fill needs. Then again, the incredibly high price for arms probably meant there was no way the Cubs were going to get appropriate return on their surplus bat. I think another issue at play is that other teams may still be seeing that same butcher who was forced to take a cheap deal from a rebuilding team two years ago.

So while they might prefer to make a deal for a young starter, I don’t think the Cubs are upset about holding onto a guy putting up the production Coghlan has. I mean, if having a guy who’s posted 5.7 fWAR in two seasons sitting the bench because he’s blocked by younger, better players is a problem, it’s a darn good one to have.

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