And this takes us back to our first point: It is impossible — utterly impossible — to watch Jeff Francoeur, to talk with him, and not to root for him. He plays the game with the enthusiasm of a child who loves baseball. He treats everyone, from the most to least important people in his life, with respect and curiosity. My friend Vac, who will readily admit to having a serious strain of New York cynicism, would text me daily during Francoeur’s brief-but-glorious hot streaks. “He’s figured it out,” Vac wrote, or “He’s turned the corner.”
Like Francoeur, nobody denies that Kotchman had talent. He was a legitimate prospect coming through the Angels system. Kotchman’s father did (and does) work for the Angels, but there wasn’t just nepotism involved –although, few things can endear fans and media members towards a player like baseball lineage—the kid was good. He hit .453 in Rookie ball (64 at-bats), .310 over Low- and High-A, (494 at-bats), .368 in Double-A (114 at-bats), and .313 in Triple-A (.313). He also fielded well and batted lefty without tons of pop. In other words: He was Mark Grace.
For whatever reason, Kotchman’s minor league success has rarely shown up in the big leagues. He struggled in his initial exposure to the big leagues, hitting .227/.298/.343 over his first 359 plate appearances. Then in 2007, at age 24, something clicked. Kotchman hit .296/.372/.467 with 37 doubles and 10 more walks than strikeouts. Everything looked swell. Since then, Kotchman has been miserable and passed from organization to organization.
People become irrational when you talk about Kotchman playing in the minors, as if he doesn’t belong, but if he doesn’t belong in the minors, then what first baseman does? Amongst first basemen with at least 600 plate appearances since 2008 (a moderate 200 plate appearances per season threshold), Kotchman has the third worst OPS. He only finishes ahead of Chad Tracy (who also plays third base and has more than 200 minor league plate appearances during the stretch) and Matt LaPorta (who is a former top prospect with a rash of injury issues that has more than 400 minor league plate appearances). And here’s the kicker: Kotchman has more plate appearances since 2008 than both of them combined.
It’s not just that he has the third worst OPS from a first baseman either, but it’s that he’s below .700. Even Kevin Millar, who is retired, managed an OPS over .700 during his waning days. Players like Mike Jacobs and Chris Davis –admonished for their flawed approaches— have OPS of .756 and .760, and those two aren’t good enough to have big league jobs at this point. First basemen hit. Kendry Morales, who replaced Kotchman as the homegrown first baseman of choice in Anaheim, has the 11th best OPS for a first bagger during the stretch, and he’s nearly .200 points superior to Kotchman.
If you look at Wins Above Replacement instead, thus giving Kotchman credit for his ethereal glove, then he moves up to being the 27th best first baseman that stretch. An improvement, but here’s the thing: If your first baseman or second baseman or shortstop or whatever is the 27th best at his position in a 30-team league and there are not extraneous circumstances (i.e. he was hurt or he’s young or he had some really poor luck) then you should be in the process of replacing him.
Why Kotchman’s minor league performance and prospect status hasn’t translated over is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s the injuries –he’s perpetually suffering from some strain or tear— or maybe it’s the groundball-heavy approach from a slow runner or maybe it’s something else. Perhaps it’s simply a combination. Now, the reports are that Kotchman has adjusted his swing and shows the pop he previously had. Ignore, for a moment, that Kotchman has one full season with an ISO above league average (and even then, it was below average for his position), and think about this. Kotchman has spent time with celebrated “old school” teams like the Angels and Braves as well as celebrated “progressive” orgs like the Red Sox and Mariners. None of them –not a single one—could revive the 2007 or minor league version of Kotchman’s bat.
As much respect as I have for the Rays’ coaching staff, I don’t see a slight alteration in Kotchman’s swing unlocking the dragon. It’s like Ben Zobrist’s trip to the swing doctor in 2009. I was skeptical, bordering on outright dismissing, and in the end … well, perhaps swinging a designer bat does not turn one into a premiere hitter. The same thinking applies here. If the Rays can fudge with Kotchman’s stance or hand placement or what have you and turn him into an All-Star, then why don’t they do it with other players of his ilk? Because it’s not that simple.
Whatever Kotchman does in spring training is mostly irrelevant –even striking out on three pitches to a Rule 5 pick isn’t damning because it is spring. The stats? They mean nothing. If he’s showing more pop than usual, he should still report to Durham to see if it’s a spring mirage or if the process has really changed. Kotchman was once a fantastic prospect. He’s not anymore. Upside is not static and he’s too far removed from his glory days to believe he can revive those Grace comparisons. The amount of playing time Kotchman has received should make even his most ardent supporters blush (he’s about 200 plate appearances shy of Kevin Youkilis, which is pretty ridiculous given the talent gap).
He’s had his chance, heck, he’s had two or three other’ chances too. There’s no reason to hand him another one without him earning it first.