This is my sixth season writing about the Rays. I started writing on DRaysBay in late 2006 and quit in early 2010. I did Maddon’s Mission for a few months, then The Process Report became my home in July 2010. The development of a writer takes years. In retrospect, I did not become an average writer until 2008 or 2009, and even then, I was stupid and overcome with angst. I did learn a few things along the way, about writing, about myself, and one of those things was to avoid being the party pooper.
During the 2009 season, Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist enjoyed career years, and I ruined some people’s ability to enjoy the ride because I kept writing about regression towards the mean and the unsustainable nature of the seasons. I was too shrill about it, and came off as petty or attention whoring. I have since left DRaysBay, which should tell you how desperate I am for hits, given that I walked away from 4,000 a day to maybe 4,000 views a week. Of course, I left because I could not reconcile staying there with maintaining my integrity.
Those two thoughts seem to be distant, so let me tie them to a common subject: my analysis of Casey Kotchman. Outside of praising individual games or the random stat post where Kotchman is mentioned, I have avoided writing about him by choice. I no longer feel required to point out that a player is playing over his head (look at the Sam Fuld or Matt Joyce coverage). With Kotchman, I may have abstained from writing about him, but the shrill part inside of me wants to take this chance to respond to those who think I hate Kotchman or want to know where I stand now.
Through almost 200 plate appearances, Kotchman has made me look stupid. Entering Sunday, his OPS was over 850—which surpasses my expectations by nearly 150 points—and there does not appear to be a stop sign in sight. If I were someone who only concerned himself with results, I would be pretty amazed, but alas, I look at the processes, so I can’t help but wonder why people waste their time asking me about him.
In cases like this, where the player drastically departs from my projected path for him, I go back review what I wrote and what I looked at, and I try to find what I missed. With Kotchman, I do not see anything. Maybe I should’ve discounted his awful 2010 season a bit more, maybe some of the injuries too, but that doesn’t equal this big of a gap. Instead, I keep arriving at the same conclusion: This is all smoke. I look at the initial analysis, and I see that I harped on a woefully high groundball rate and low power production. Prior to Sunday’s game, Kotchman was hitting 53.2 percent grounders (career 53.2 percent) and his ISO is .129 (career .133).
I believe that Kotchman must lift and drive the ball more often to be an offensive asset because, at 6-foot-4 and thick, he is not of a lithe body. He is a big guy, a guy who looks like he should hit like Adrian Gonzalez, but does not. It takes Kotchman time to transport that body. On two plays over the last two days, Kotchman has experienced what I will call “hustle plays”. On Saturday night, he shot a liner to the right-center gap, but was held to a single on a play that most batters turn into a double. On Sunday, he hit a grounder down the third base line and was credited with a single (he advanced to second after a throw home). I used a stopwatch and timed the Saturday night play, and because MLB.tv still had blackout restrictions on today’s game, I had my editor at Baseball Prospectus, Ben Lindbergh, to time Sunday’s play. I got 4.92 seconds, he got 4.95 seconds from contact until Kotchman stepped on first. In a recent article, Jason Parks had 4.5 seconds from a left-handed hitter as legitimate grade-20 speed, which is the bottom of the scale. When B.J. Upton was benched for lack of hustle, he was timed at 5.33 to first base. Kotchman is closer to Upton than he is to the league-average mark.
For that reason, Kotchman’s June has sparked some optimism in me. His June groundball rate represents a season low (45.8 percent) and his ISO a season best (.154)—naturally, Kotchman’s OPS is a season worse, at 804. There is a good chance it’s just fluctuation, which dampens any thoughts I have of hyping the changes.
There are qualitative things about Kotchman that drive me nuts. After a pop up or strikeout he will often sling his bat into the earth or contort his face and upper body into ugly and negative shapes to show how irritated he is. In a town where B.J. Upton gets treated like a dog because of his negative body language, it drives me loony that Kotchman avoids a similar fate despite acting like an undisciplined child. Despite that, I will admit that Kotchman has found success this season, and therefore I will not hold his qualitative quantities against him.
The natural inclination is to believe something unquantifiable has changed. One theory is that Kotchman is hitting the ball harder, which explains away his increased hit rate on groundballs and line drives. Now, I will ask why we believe that, and the answer is because the results are improved. None of us have access to HITf/x data, so that is the only reason I believe it’s even a theory. My response to the theory is logical. If Kotchman is hitting the ball harder, then wouldn’t that show up in his other statistics?
Some of Kotchman’s harder line drives would go for extra-bases or home runs, and his groundballs would be skirting through the infield without issue. Yet, Kotchman has a home run per flyball rate below his career norms. He has a career best infield hit rate (infield hits/groudballs), as his 2011 rate is over eight percent and his career average is four percent. He has a career low infield flyball rate (4.9 percent, whereas in the past his previous low was 7.1 percent and career norm is 11.2 percent), and his aforementioned ISO and groundball rates suggest he is comparable to the Kotchman who was a failure of a hitter.
It becomes difficult for me to believe that Kotchman has made legitimate strides knowing that information and what I know about regression towards the mean. To me, it feels like a case where human beings are applying narratives to data after the fact to explain away random fluctuation over a small sample size. Therefore, I cannot hand wave the warning signs away and I will not buy into the new Kotchman, not now, possibly not at a point in 2011. Outliers can happen, after all.
Some will read this and say I’m too egotistical and that my writing reeks of solipsism. That’s okay if you believe that, but ask yourself this. Why would someone like me (who admittedly identifies with the front office more than the players on the field) not prop this signing up as a stroke of Andrew Friedman’s genius? Why would I not push this as a paragon of the Rays ability to turn sewer water into wine, or a staple of the Extra 2%? Why would I not boast about the Rays ability to salvage what the Braves, Angels, Mariners, and Red Sox—the damn Red Sox—failed to excavate? The only reason I will abstain is because I do not believe this is a legitimate improvement, not yet, and my integrity as an analyst will not allow it. After all these years of writing and observing, I do not—I cannot—believe in magic.