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Chris Coghlan: Victim of the shift and the outside strike

Teams are shifting and throwing outside strikes to Chris Coghlan like crazy. Can the Oakland Athletics utilityman overcome it?

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics
Chris Coghlan could be the latest victim of the shift.
Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Here is Chris Coghlan on a list of worst batting averages on balls in play, minimum 130 plate appearances:

  1. .158 Ryan Howard
  2. .161 Chris Coghlan
  3. .182 Yan Gomes
  4. .185 Corey Dickerson

Coghlan does not historically have a poor BABIP, he's .308 for his career, .284 in 2015, and .337 in 2014. His quality of contact isn't much changed, he's making about the same quality of contact as his successful 2014:

His line drive percentage is down a little bit, but we're talking about a difference of maybe two or three line drives at this point to get him to the 20 percent rate he had with the Cubs last year, not nearly enough to explain the difference:

He's not pulling the ball as often as he has, but considering how much teams are shifting on him, one would suspect that would only be helpful. But teams shifting on Coghlan is a relatively new phenomenon. He has already put more balls in play against shifts than he did in 2015. Before 2014, Coghlan only put a ball in play against the shift 1-3 times a season:

It's not like Coghlan isn't adjusting to the shift now that he's facing it about half of the time. Coghlan has the sixth lowest pull percentage among the 108 batters who have put at least 30 balls in play against the shift. The problem is that he's not really going the other way with it all that much either.

Coghlan puts 53.5 percent of his balls in play against the shift up the middle (4th highest, min. 30 BIP vs. shift), and combined with the fourth lowest line drive percentage against the shift, he doesn't have many chances of getting a ball up the middle with the shortstop stationed next to the second base bag. FanGraphs says Coghlan is 1-for-42 on ground balls (though their batted ball chart gives him credit for two singles):

So many ground balls up the middle, normally base hits, are just getting turned into simple ground balls to a shortstop waiting by the second base bag:

I don't know if Coghlan is consciously adjusting his approach in a manner where his attempts to avoiding pulling the ball into shift is causing him to hit fewer line drives and more ground balls, but that is what is happening.

To beat the shift, Coghlan either has to go all the way with that adjustment, really getting the ball away from the middle and into the opposite field hole, or he has to ignore the shift and rely on his line drive power to beat the shift no matter where he puts the ball.

The outside strike

One would think that if infields are shifting more on Coghlan, you would see pitchers pitch inside to induce Coghlan to pull, but the opposite has been the case. Compare his 2015 pitch location heatmap to 2016:

With pitchers going to the outer half and infields shifting Coghlan to pull, one would think Coghlan would be able to just go the other way, but all too often those are the very pitches Coghlan grounds right into the shift. Here are the results of all the outer half pitches Coghlan has put in play:

That's five scattered singles (the two singles on the left side are a Statcast duplication error), an automatic double in Oakland, and an awful lot of ground balls to the right side. Coghlan has to adjust to pitchers pounding him away by going the other way because he's not going to get any ground balls through with three infielders on the right side.

Take, for example, this ground ball, which did require a good play by Darwin Barney to retire Coghlan with no shift on:

Protecting with two strikes, what is Coghlan doing pulling off of a low-and-away pitch of any kind there?

If you're wondering why Coghlan is swinging at something like that in the first place, the issue is that Coghlan is the victim of the outside left-handed strike zone. Consider this plot of called strikes and balls to Coghlan that Statcast considers rulebook balls:

Coghlan is more or less offering at what the umpires are calling strikes:

But he's pulling them or sending them up the middle to a waiting shifted shortstop more often than finding a left-side hole:

Coghlan has to make some adjustment that's going to let him hit these outside pitches to the left side more often, because he's doing pretty much everything else within the range of his successful 2014 and 2015 campaigns. Sure, the strikeouts are up some and the walks are down some, but I think part of that is that inability to consistently do anything with the low-and-away strike pitchers are throwing to him. If he can't fix this, then the league's shift surge has claimed its latest victim.