August 3, 2011
The Magic of Kotch
It is a bit odd, but a guy that has been in the top three for American League batting average has yet to be a feature in an article here. Check Casey Kotchman’s player card page and you will see it is true. Michael Street has mentioned him twice in recent weeks in his Value Picks column and also pointed out that Kotchman was owned in just 9 percent of Yahoo! leagues, 8 percent of ESPN leagues, and 29 percent of CBS leagues despite his batting average. John Perrotto reported in his On the Beat column that the Pirates were interested in Kotchman but instead ended up trading for Derrek Lee. Dustin Parkes had a comical line in a Divide and Conquer article last month in which he compared Kotchman to a Swiss army knife that only works as a bottle opener, but it does that job very well. Clearly, the great minds around here are not quite sure how to frame Kotchman’s surprise season, but the people more emotionally-attached to the issue in the Tampa Bay blogosphere are just as confused with how to frame what has become known as, “The Magic of Kotch.”
Kotchman was an after-thought of a signing when he was brought in this past off-season as a minor league free agent after posting a -13.7 VORP and a .227 TAv with Seattle last season as their everyday first baseman. Kotchman was coming to a fanbase that had grown rather attached to Carlos Pena from 2007 to 2010 and lived with his prolonged slumps in between his prodigious home runs that often came in bunches. After all, he looked very good at first base and it was impossible to peel the smile off Pena’s face. Kotchman was coming in as an insurance policy for Dan Johnson, whose career with the Rays was more known for a handful of dramatic home runs against Boston and New York in the playoff runs of 2008 and 2010 than his overall body of work. As it turns out, the Rays had to cash in that insurance policy quicker than expected once Manny Ramirez put his career into Operation Shutdown five games into the season. Eventually, Dan Johnson’s season did the same as he could not hit anything safely into play while Kotchman seemingly could not hit into an out. He assumed the starting first base job in late April and has played nearly every day since.
Obviously, the numbers this year mark a career season and have led to a lot of speculation as to how a guy could go from a minor league free agent to a batting title contender after multiple seasons of below replacement level production. The trouble has been trying to qualify the new-found success. Some believe it is another example of a local kid coming home and finding a comfort level in the surroundings in which he grew up. Others point to the surgery he had this off-season that squeezed pus out of his tear ducts that Kotchman himself said was like, “looking through a dirty windshield.” In a season in which most of the Tampa Bay Rays have struggled, fans have become attached to Kotchman as he continues to hit balls where the fielders are not while others on the team struggle just to make contact. The same fan base that watched Jason Bartlett do the exact same thing in 2009 only to come crashing back down to Earth in 2010 has a short-term memory as there is a growing groundswell to sign Kotchman to a multi-year deal based on his performance this season. In order for any General Manager to consider that, however, the first thing they would do is evaluate the process and see whether Kotchman has indeed reinvented himself as a hitter. These are Kotchman’s batted ball numbers over the same time period as above:
Clearly, the process at the plate has not changed much at all—just the results. He is hitting ground balls at a career-high rate (by a small margin), but they are also finding holes at a career-high rate. For his career, Kotchman has hit .194 on ground balls in 1158 plate appearances, but this season, he is hitting .277—75 points higher than any other point in his career.
Recently, one Rays blogger opined that the reason Kotchman was finding this type of success was due to the fact that he is hitting well with men on first base as the defense has to both hold the runner on first base and play at double play depth, which opens up some ground balls to the right side of the infield. Truth be told, he is indeed hitting .434/474/.623 with men on first base this season, but it comes with just 57 plate appearances. Even in controlled situations like this where variables are focused to a situation, 57 plate appearances is hardly enough of a sample size to come to a definitive conclusion. After all, Kotchman has spent most of the season hitting behind B.J. Upton (and his .308 OBP) and Evan Longoria, who has attempted but two stolen bases all season due to nerve issues in his foot.
If we look further back at Kotchman’s performance with men on first base, we see a bit of Saberhagenmetrics going on as he has hit .388, .198, .316, .169, and now .434 in these situations since 2007. The last 57 plate appearances have been good, but last season he hit behind Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez, who combined for 85 stolen bases attempts, yet Kotchman was just 13 for 77 in those situations. For his career, Kotchman has a .282/.337/.424 slash line with runners on first, and that is a truer talent level than the aberration we are seeing this season. If the hypothesis were to hold true, certainly Kotchman would have done better last season in these situations with stronger stolen base threats in front of him, eye pus or no eye pus.
Correlation does not equal causation here; it is just another nice story in a comeback year for Casey Kotchman. I am guessing he went undrafted in 99.9 percent of fantasy leagues this season, but he has been a pleasant surprise for those that were forced to roster him for one reason or another. Many were surprised that the Rays were unable to trade him before the trade deadline, but it is my guess that the league is seeing what some fans are not: Kotchman’s numbers have been in decline, across the board, since he assumed full time duty. Overall, he has still been worth 1.8 wins above replacement, but his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage have all declined by month over the past three months, and it appears the magic trick is wearing off a bit. If you have the opportunity to trade him in your own keeper league, by all means, move him for some future value as it is unlikely the new results outlast the old process in 2012.