It's easy to cast Kole Calhoun as the little outfielder who could. As the plucky overachiever. Scrappy. The Angels' 26-year-old rightfielder and leadoff hitter looks the part: Thick-chested and compact, the red-headed, goateed 26-year-old is listed in the Angels' media guide at 5' 10." His manager has his doubts. "Put him on a rack, and he's 5' 9," maybe," says Mike Scioscia.
The road Calhoun took to the majors—he went undrafted four straight years before the Angels took an eighth-round flier on him in 2010—also fits neatly into the narrative of the undersized player who defied the odds to make it to the big leagues, an Ecksteinian narrative that broadcasters will keep in their hip pockets this October, but one that devalues his talent. As a college senior, Calhoun led powerhouse Arizona State in home runs; he hit .317 with a .943 OPS through four years in the minors. This year, his first full season in the majors, he was one of the most productive leadoff hitters in the game.
"My job is just to get on base however I can—a hit, a walk, a hit by pitch, I don't care," Calhoun says of hitting in front of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, who bat second and third, respectively, in the Angels' lineup. An offensive force in his own right, Calhoun hit .281 with a .336 OBP, 17 home runs and an .807 OPS from the leadoff spot, tied for highest in the league at the top of the order. He's helped turn what was a slightly above-average offense in 2013 (ranked sixth in the league in runs scored) into '14's highest-scoring team. Despite sitting out five weeks with an ankle injury, Calhoun, an above-average fielder, still ranked fourth in WAR on a roster loaded with high-priced stars. "He's not your prototypical leadoff hitter, because he doesn't steal 30 bags"—Calhoun swiped just five this year—"but he gets on base, and the power he's provided has been huge," says Angels pitcher Matt Shoemaker.
The Angels, who strut into the playoffs with the best regular-season record in the majors, overcame the loss of their best starting pitcher, Garrett Richards; a putrid first-half performance from the bullpen; and another underperforming season from Josh Hamilton to win the AL West by 10 games. The hot October lights will shine particularly brightly on Trout, who after another MVP-worthy regular season will appear in his first playoffs, and on Pujols, who will be playing in his first postseason as an Angel. But for L.A. to win its first championship since 2002, the team will also need Calhoun to lead the way.
MICHAEL ZAGARIS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CALHOUN)