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Casey (Kotchman) at the Bat

When ex-Angel Casey Kotchman's name started coming up in connection with the Mariners, the response around here was a collective yawn. Yes, he can get on base a little bit, yes, he has a nice glove at first base, but he wasn't the power bat we were expecting to fill first base for the next couple of years. He also cost a 'prospect' and some money, (I guess he anti-cost Bill Hall), so it's not like he came for free - we had to go out and get him. And yes, he's not a very exciting or flashy player. Glovework at the cold corner is not something that draws oohs and aahs from the crowd, and a walk is roughly as exciting as watching Miguel Batista pitch. So let's get this out of our system now: Casey Kotchman is a pretty damn boring first baseman.

However, he's not bad. His park-adjusted wOBA for 2009 was a touch over league average, he's put up gaudy UZRs at first for a while, and he's only 27, two years removed from a year where he hit .296/.372/.467, which I imagine everyone would take from a gold-glove calibre first baseman. Originally, this post was going to be all about about what's changed between then and now using pitch f/x, but I couldn't get hold of good data from back then, so it's improvisation time!

Looking at the numbers, what jumps out as different between 2007 and 2009 are isolated power and zone% - i.e. how hard the ball is hit and how often a pitch ends up in the strike zone. In 2007, when Kotchman was slugging .467, less than 40% of the pitches he was faced with were strikes (Update: Jeff points out that this may well just be bad scorer syndrome), which is perfect for a guy with his hitting approach. He was hitting the ball hard, so pitcher would nibble, and he'd take his walks. If they made a mistake, he'd hit it. Last year, on the other hand, he put up an unspectacular .268/.339/.382 line, and pitchers threw him 50% strikes. Without demonstrating any real power, Kotchman has no way of scaring pitchers into playing his game.

Fortunately for Casey, his power (such as it is) is all to right field. Remember that graph of Safeco I put up a couple of weeks ago? In the last three seasons, only one of Kotchman's homers is ended up on the left side of the diamond. Fenway's not an easy place for a lefty to go yard, and Safeco is. Pitchers might give Kotchman a little more respect due to the 'power' that the park will provide - as long as they're right-handed.

Kotchman's platoon splits aren't very noticeable until you get to the 'slugging' part, whereupon he loses 40 points against left-handed pitchers. This is a lot to be giving up when you're barely mediocre in the first place. Why? Well, I noticed when I was playing around with pitch f/x for the 2009 season that Kotchman can't hit left handed breaking balls at all. He saw something like 60 of them last year and recorded one(!) hit on a hanging curve middle-up. Whoops! It'd be interesting to see whether that's a trend, because pitchers apparently haven't noticed - he gets thrown just about the same percentage amount of breaking balls year after year.

Anyway, using the data I do have (2009), I thought it'd be a little instructive to see where Kotchman does well against lefties and where he does well against right handers. I looked at nine areas of the strike zone and its immediate vicinity, measuring swing percentage, contact percentage, batting average on balls in play (with home runs included), and isolated power on balls in play. The results are below:

Figure 1: Casey Kotchman vs. Left-Handed Pitching By Zone, Catcher's View

Figure 2: Casey Kotchman vs. Right-Handed Pitching By Zone, Catcher's View

I guess the moral of the story is to throw the ball at Casey's knees until he starts crying or something. He can't hit pitches down and in at all, but that apparently doesn't stop him swinging at them. In fact, just keep the ball on the ground against him and the best he'll do is put singles through the infield 25% of the time. Kotchman's power all comes from elevated pitches - away against lefties and in against righties, so pitchers will probably want to avoid staying up in the zone. They're cool with tossing it right down the middle though, especially if they're left-handed. An ISO of .091 is something special, and it's even more spectacular when it's coming on pitches right down the middle.

Anyway, I was expecting to see a big difference in ISO between LHP and RHP rather than in contact, but that's only because I'd been looking at career splits rather than last year's - he ran an awful .250/.312/.313 line against lefties last year as opposed to a pretty decent (already starting to adjust) .275/.350/.410 vs. righthanders. Hopefully that will change, and there's reason to think it may. 2008 actually saw Kotchman put up a reverse split somehow where he hit lefties to the tune of an .819 OPS and barely got over .700 against right handed pitchers.

A word of warning about the diagrams I posted - they're pretty tiny samples (50-100 pitches apiece for 2009) and they could easily be fluked, which is why I'd really have liked to have had multiple years of data to play with. An interesting next step with the information, though, might be to see if pitchers follow what the data indicates they should do. Are they staying low? Hammering down and in? What's their game plan against Kotchman, and does it reflect this read of his hitting abilities?

If nothing else, it's something to think about when you watch him hit this year.