Projecting the Playoffs, The Case for Kotchman

Evan Brunell@evanbrunellFeatured ColumnistSeptember 15, 2009

<a href=MLB: Angels v Rangers September 26, 2007" width="234" height="351" />

Projecting the Playoffs

With just 20 games remaining in the regular season, the Sox' Hunt for Red October is getting stronger by the day. At this juncture, with this team, a 4 ½ game lead in the Wild Card is a considerable advantage. Don't get cozy though, as one hot or cold stretch can completely change the complexion of this race. Still, it's looking pretty good for the Sox, as Baseball Prospectus gives the Red Sox a 92% chance of winning the Wild Card (though they are quoted as having just a 1.5 % chance of winning the AL East).

But this is by no means a set race. Remember, baseball history is littered with cautionary tales of teams who were content to just sit on their lead. Lest we forget, and become drunk by our own success, there's the 1978 Red Sox, the 1986 Red Sox, the 2003 Red Sox, even the 2004 Yankees. Sometimes we all need to be humbled. (If you like horror stories, check out this article by Nate Silver on late season collapses. A word to the wise: light sleepers, don't even bother reading about the 1995 Angels. You'll be up all night.)

Now that you've been scared straighter than an adolescent in juvey, take solace in the fact that the Sox have a pretty favorable schedule ahead of them. Their remaining six series include trips to Baltimore and Kansas City, as well as a set at home against Toronto and Cleveland to close out the year.

The other two sets will be much more difficult, however.

This week's home stand against the Angels will have a lot to say about the Wild Card race, and could be Texas' last chance to climb out of their hole. Texas needs an L.A. sweep, which, though unlikely, is always a possibility.

And the Sox also have one more series against the boys in Pinstripes. Should the previous two sets against New York be any indicator, things will be very ugly. Hopefully, the race will be long over before the team's field trip to the Bronx from the 25th to the 27th.

Texas has a similar schedule, with two series against contenders (2 v. Los Angeles) and four against regular season flops (Oakland twice, Seattle once, and one versus the suddenly vintage Tampa Bay). Boston has the easier shake, but, if you're reading this site, you're probably OK with that.

From a fan's standpoint, it's too bad that Texas doesn't face Boston at any point in the remainder of the season. It would have been guaranteed to provide huge fireworks as the season winds down. Instead, baseball fans across the country will have to be content with reading lonely box scores as they follow the playoff race.

The Most Unappreciated Red Sock

In the 2008 ALCS, facing little brother the Tampa Bay Rays, the Sox squandered back-to-back World Series dreams when their 7-9 hitters batted 0 for 1000. Only the anti-heroics of one Rays right fielder Gabe Gross were enough to keep the Sox in the series at all (Gross was hitless on the series, and misplayed J.D. Drew's Game 5 line drive into the game-winning hit.)

I think Theo learned his lesson from last season: never underestimate the value of backups.

While this is a new season, and with it brings new challenges, lineup depth will not be one of them.


...because Casey Kotchman mans first base.

Now, "Casey Kotchman" isn't the most awe-inspiring name: he is a below-average first baseman with the stick and he doesn't hit a whole lot better than a middle infield regular. But he does provide the Red Sox with some serious depth and flexibility in the infield.

Now that the Patriot's season has started, it seems poignant to invoke a Sox-Pats comparison about team depth. Bill Belichick, the genius strategist that he is, has always made sure to have plenty of versatility at every position, making every roster spot a valuable, indispensable asset. Mike Vrabel was a goal-line tight end. Dan Klecko, a defensive tackle from Temple, ran plays at fullback on occasion. Troy Brown played... cornerback?

The Sox have Victor Martinez, a second catcher who can HIT well enough to man first base, and Kevin Youkilis, an MVP caliber player proficient at both corners of the infield. Maybe one day Casey Kelly can DH for... himself.

So, back to the Case for Kotchman. It's time to stop thinking of him as the team's 3rd option at first base.

When the playoffs arrive (again, should the Sox make it), Victor Martinez should no longer be splitting time between first and catcher. Sure, V-Mart's plate defense is poor, but so is Varitek's, and there is one key difference: Martinez can hit.

Whether or not Martinez's knees are creaking after so many years behind the plate, Tito should play him at catcher more than his fair share during the post season. He has to. Martinez is the far superior backstop at this point, and the playoffs are when all past player-manager loyalties will be thrown out the window. And Martinez will be PUSHED... leaving Kotchman as the primary 1st base backup.

Should some unfortunate injury befall Mike Lowell, which will further accentuate the fact that he needs days off, Casey Kotchman should become the team's primary first baseman, allowing V-Mart to stay behind the plate. Kotchman at first is not an ideal scenario, by any means, but what could be worse than starting Mark Kotsay like in the 2008 ALCS? Let's recap:

2008 ALCS (sans Lowell) 7-9 Spots

7. C Jason Varitek
8. SS Jed Lowrie
9. 1B Mark Kotsay

The '09 Replacements (sans Lowell)

C Victor Martinez
SS Alex Gonzalez / Jed Lowrie
1B Casey Kotchman

That's not even close. Just comparing the first name on each list completely unbalances the equation.

But there's more. Without Kotchman, the team would be seriously handicapped at catcher as well. Should Lowell go down under these rules, the team would be forced to play Martinez at first, while throwing Varitek back into starting duty at catcher; not to mention the fact that either Dusty Brown or George Kottaras would be required to catch for Wakefield.

In the event of injury, the tradeoff essentially boils down to Kotchman for Lowell, instead of Varitek for Lowell.

Take your pick: Varitek: .217/.322/.409 or Kotchman: .269/.342/.390. OPS or not, I'll take Kotchman every time.

Casey at the Bat

Yes, Virginia, there are better hitters than Casey Kotchman.

With a groundball swing and a contact-oriented approach, Kotchman does not hit many homeruns, especially for a first sacker with a 6-3, 215 lb frame. Though he has a career 9.0 HR/FB rate, he has never been much of a home run threat thanks to all the ground balls he hits. Kotchman is a different breed of first baseman... or a hark back to the Dead-Ball Era where entire teams hit fewer than 10 home runs per year - whichever you prefer.

Instead of trying to club home runs, (Un)Mighty Casey helps to make up for his lack of power by being exceptionally hard to strikeout, with a career 9.8 percent K rate. Batters who put the ball in play as much as Kotchman usually hit for much higher averages, as his career .269 average seems very low for his skill set. His below average .284 career batting average on balls in play is the primary culprit for his low batting averages. However, with just 1829 career plate appearances, there is time to improve, and the low BAs could still be the exception, not the rule.

Kotchman's upside for future years is tied to improving his BABIP and adding some upward plane to his stroke. Though Casey's power output is closer to that of a third-world country without electricity, his baseball strength is not all that bad. Should he ever start hitting more fly balls (he has a career 52.7% groundball percentage against just 29.8% fly balls), he could have a 20-HR season in him.

Teams have long been intrigued by Mighty Casey because of his mix of contact, size, and latent pop in his bat. A player with any latent power potential and a penchant for putting the ball in play is a valuable commodity.

Some have posited that if Kotchman were to hit more fly balls, he would have more power and be a better player. Sure, the home runs would be nice, but a steeper swing gradient would mean more swings and misses and more strikeouts - negating that contact attribute that teams have fallen in love with. It's a delicate balance.

Still, the 2008 and 2009 versions of Kotchman seem to be out of step with his skill set. Call it a hunch, but I see him as more of the player he was in 2007, when he hit .296/.372/.467 with 11 HRs, 53 BBs, and just 43 Ks in 508 PAs. The only difference between 2009 and 2007 are a slight change in BB and K rate (likely due to random fluctuation, not a change in underlying skill) and a BABIP 20 points higher in '07. Other than that, he's the same player. Not a bad guy to have on your bench or to play in a pinch.

Considerable upside? No, but upside none the less.

...and there's still more to like. Kotchman is just 26, with plenty of room to improve and just over 3 years of MLB service time. Does he have a future with the Sox? Sounds like some great off-season water-cooler chatter.

Maybe he'll get the chance to prove himself in the next few weeks.

Oh yeah, chalk that one up as a YES on the Theo-Meter.


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