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2012 in Review: Casey Kotchman

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Casey Kotchman was signed during the winter to compete for the 1B job, a competition he was expected to win. Kotchman was coming off the best offensive season of his career in 2011, when he finished 8th in the A.L. with a .306 BA and 10th with a .378 OBP. In addition to those offensive numbers, he brought a sterling defensive reputation with him, due in no small part to the highest fielding percentage by a 1B in MLB history.

David Richard-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Bats: Left Throws: Left

2012 Age: 29

2012 bWAR: -1.1

2012 fWAR: -1.5

2012 Salary: $3,000,000

2013 Contract Status: unrestricted free agent

Kotchman’s defense was especially valued because the Indians were expected to have one of the most extreme ground ball starting rotations in baseball history, meaning there would be a lot of plays at and around first base. This proved to be flawed thinking for a couple of reasons:

1. The pitching wasn’t actually that ground ball heavy. The rotation did have a high GB%, but not as high as the Indians had in 2010 or 2011, and certainly nothing historically high. When you factor in the bullpen, Cleveland had basically an average percentage of groundballs.

2. More importantly, Kotchman’s defense didn’t turn out to be everything it was cracked up to be. Perhaps this should not have been a surprise, seeing as how fielding percentage is an awfully old fashioned way of judging fielders, and the more sophisticated defensive metrics haven’t been hot for Kotchman since 2009.

Kotchman made more errors in 2012 than he had in 2008-2011 combined, though his total of 6 still rates as an average amount for a 1B. He also led all MLB 1B in assists, so there’s that. The more advanced defensive metrics were somewhat divided on Kotchman’s 2012 performance. Baseball-Reference’s numbers have him as having been mildly below average among 1B, while Fangraph’s figures have him rated as among the least effective defensive players at the position on the season.

Kotchman’s offense, on the other hand, there is no disagreement about… He was terrible. Kotchman came out of the gate by putting up a slash line of .149/.240/.254 in April. Things picked up a bit from there (how could they not?), but at the All-Star break his line was still just .241/.299/.372, poor for any position, anemic for a 1B.

Incredibly, things got worse after the break. His slash line for the second half was .213/.254/.282. He began to play a little less, but still managed to compile 500 plate appearances. Here’s a look at his first and second half splits in greater detail:

1st Half 76 69 285 261 32 63 10 0 8 34 3 0 17 32 .241 .299 .372 .671
2nd Half 66 51 215 202 14 43 2 0 4 21 0 0 9 17 .213 .254 .282 .536

Put those together and you get a complete line for the season that looks like this:

2012 CLE 142 500 463 46 106 12 0 12 55 3 0 26 49 .229 .280 .333 .612 73

It takes 502 PA in a 162 game season to qualify on rate stats like batting average, leaving Kotchman two short of qualifying, which saves him from officially having the worst on-base percentage in the American League this season. Drop the qualifying line to 500 PA (which is what I’m going to do for the remainder of this article) and he’s at the bottom, with only Cincinnati’s Drew Stubbs beneath him in the National League (for what it’s worth, Stubbs is a fantastic defensive centerfielder).

What caused the drop in Kotchman’s hitting numbers from 2011 to 2012? For one part of the answer, we look to his BABIP (batting average on ball in play). BABIP removes home runs, walks, and strikeouts from a player’s line, and looks at his batting average on balls hit into the field of play. Hitters have some control over it, but large deviations from their established level (Kotchman has a career figure of .273) are largely due to luck.

In 2011, Kotchman’s BABIP was .335, easily the highest of his career. In 2012, Kotchman’s figure was .233, the worst in baseball. So, it’s fair to say Kotchman was somewhat unlucky in 2012, but he was equally lucky in 2011, something the Indians may or may not have taken into account when valuing his production before offering him a contract.

The other large change between seasons was a drastic drop in Kotchman’s batting eye. O-Swing% is the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone a player swings at. Kotchman swung at 26% of pitches outside the strike zone in 2011 (and 2010), which was better than average, but in 2012 that figure jumped to 31%, worse than league average. He went from seeing 3.85 pitchers per PA in 2011 (62nd in MLB), to 3.60 pitches in 2012 (125th in MLB, out of 148). This led to a drop in his BB% from 8.5% to 5.2% (132nd out of 148).

Kotchman had an on base percentage of .280, which was the worst by a 1B in MLB since 1920.

Kotchman had a slugging percentage of .333, which was the worst by a 1B in MLB since 1983.

Kotchman had an OPS+ of 73, which is the worst by a 1B in Indians history.

Factor in the varying defensive ratings from Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs and Kotchman had a bWAR of -.1.1 and an fWAR of -1.5. Each of those is the worst by any 1B in Indians history and among the five worst seasons at any position in Indians history (among players who played so much). In short, Kotchman was the worst 1B in MLB this season and the worst in franchise history for the Tribe.

Place in the Indians’ 2013 Plans: None (or heads should roll)