On August 31 the St. Louis Cardinals’ dreams of a playoff berth were fading fast. Not only did they have a tenuous grasp on the second NL Wild Card spot with a half-game lead over the Pirates and a 1.5-game lead over the Dodgers, but the defending World Series champions were also in the midst of a four-game losing streak.
That very same day, the organization was dealt a potentially crushing blow as news broke that shortstop Rafael Fucal—a major contributor for the Cardinals in the 2011 postseason—had been diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow after leaving the previous night’s game in the sixth inning.
Despite the nature of the injury, one that commonly involves a gloomy morning date with Dr. James Andrews, the Cardinals seemed somewhat optimistic that the 34-year-old could return for the playoffs.
However, following the conclusion of the regular season and as the Cardinals prepared for the Wild Card play-in game against the Braves, the team announced that Furcal needed at least another month of recovery time and ruled him out for the entire 2012 postseason.
In his place, the organization opted to call up 24-year-old Pete Kozma, a middle infielder who batted .176/.333/.235 in 16 games over two big leagues stints last season.
The Cardinals' first-round selection (No. 18 overall) in the 2007 draft out of an Oklahoma high school, Kozma has never blossomed into the player that the team expected him to be, and was slapped with the utility player label early in his professional career. And in hindsight, it was a pretty damn accurate assessment.
Over six minor league seasons the right-handed hitter owns a .236/.308/.344 slash line with 43 stolen bases and 506/253 K/BB in 671 games. Evidenced by his lack of offensive production, it should come as no surprise that it took the 6'0", 170-pounder until his third professional season (2009) to reach Double-A. However, Kozma’s subpar bat led to a repeat of the level the following year where the results were only slightly improved. Regardless, the team added him to the 40-man roster in mid-November.
Kozma was promoted to Triple-A Memphis to open his 2011 campaign and once again struggled at the plate, posting a paltry .569 OPS in 112 games amidst the pair of call-ups.
After his dismal campaign between Triple-A and the major leagues, Kozma was far removed from everyone’s prospect radar—including the Cardinals’—headed into the 2012 season. Forced to repeat Triple-A, he was batting only .232/.292/.355 through 131 games when Furcal went down on Aug. 31.
On any other day, the team would have turned to another Triple-A shortstop, Ryan Jackson, who posted a .730 OPS in 113 games. But after he hit .118/.167/.118 in 18 plate appearances for the Cardinals in August, the team optioned him on Aug. 29—the day before Furcal’s injury.
As Major League Baseball's rules dictate, Jackson would have to spend 10 days in the minor leagues before he'd be eligible for a recall. Therefore, Kozma received the first crack as the Cardinals’ new shortstop by default, essentially.
But then something unprecedented happened: Kozma started hitting.
He was never supposed to be the team’s solution for replacing Rafael Furcal; rather, Kozma was intended to be a stop-gap player filling in temporarily. But he hit so well after getting the nod that it was impossible not to keep him in the everyday lineup.
Playing 26 games down the stretch for the Cardinals, Kozma batted .333/.383/.569 with 10 extra-base hits, 14 RBI and 19/7 K/BB in 82 plate appearances. More importantly, he helped the team solidify a spot in the postseason by batting .405/.455/.703 with 12 RBI over his final 12 games of the regular season.
According to FanGraphs.com, Kozma registered a 1.4 fWAR following his promotion from Triple-A, which, when compared to Rafael Furcal’s 1.2 fWAR in 121 games, is simply astonishing.
His hot bat has carried over into the postseason, as the 24-year-old has posted a .783 OPS with six RBI and 8/5 K/BB in seven games.
With a flair for the dramatic, Kozma also has delivered two of the team’s biggest hits this October: a three-run home run in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Nationals and a go-ahead (and ultimately game-winning), two-run single with two outs in the ninth inning of the decisive Game 5.
But is Kozma the real deal? Can he actually be this good despite the fact his ongoing minor league track record indicates otherwise?
Despite his incredible final month of the regular season and subsequent postseason success, Kozma’s early projection as a utility player is more accurate than ever. However, to think that he can offer anything close to the same amount of production is simply misled optimism.
With slightly above-average range, good instincts and a relatively strong arm, Kozma could likely handle the position defensively, as he’s credited for saving two runs this season in 25 games.
Yet, his bat remains a legitimate and major concern. You see, players who post a .236 batting average over six minor league seasons don’t suddenly figure out how to hit upon reaching the major leagues.
Rather, Kozma’s offensive success is mainly a product of luck.
During the regular season, the right-handed hitter’s .333 batting average was inflated by a .415 BABIP, which was substantially higher than the National League average of .299. It was also the highest mark of his professional career since posting a .330 BABIP in his age-20 season for Low-A Quad Cities in 2008. But since reaching Double-A in 2010, his BABIP has ranged from .251 to .285.
Furthermore, Kozma was the beneficiary of a 30.9-percent line-drive rate in his 26 games with the Cardinals. For the sake of comparison, Robinson Cano's 25.6-percent was the seventh-highest line-drive rate of all qualified hitters this past season, while the National League average was 18.6-percent.
So, while Kozma may be currently performing at a high level and therefore seem capable of an everyday role as the team’s shortstop in 2013, I urge everyone to temper their expectations. While his unexpected, ongoing success has been undeniably exciting, it also happens to be an inaccurate and deceiving portrayal of his overall potential.