As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s presumed starting first baseman: Casey Kotchman.
Background: When he was 18, the then-Anaheim Angels picked Kotchman with their first-round pick (No. 13 overall) in the 2011 MLB amateur draft. A highly regarded prospect, Baseball America named him one of the top 25 prospects in baseball four years in a row, including a No. 6 ranking in 2005. But he earned renown for his defense and contact skill, he never developed the power necessary to become a standout first baseman.
In addition to the Angels, he’s spent time with the Braves, Red Sox, Mariners, and Rays.
Last year: 2011 was one of the best seasons of Kotchman’s career. At age 28, he hit a career-high .306 with 10 home runs, 48 RBI, and 44 runs scored in 146 games with Tampa Bay. He also set personal bests in OBP (.378) and wRC+ (125) while posting an .800 OPS for the first time since 2007. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs put him at 2.9 and 2.8 wins above replacement, respectively, while Baseball Prospectus estimated his value at 1.9 wins.
Key factor: Batting average on balls in play. There’s reason to think that Kotchman’s breakout season was largely the result of good fortune, as his .335 BABIP was 55 points higher than his career average. Making the situation even more interesting is that Kotchman somehow managed a hit rate of just .229 in 2010, meaning his BABIP swung 106 points in the course of one season.
Is it possible that part of the drastic improvement is from Kotchman legitimately getting better? In all likelihood the biggest factor in his inconsistency has been luck, but a swing as dramatic as that leaves room for other interpretations. All else equal, BABIPs of .229, .280, or .335 would mean dramatically different results for Kotchman in 2012.
The degree to which these projections line up is remarkable. The only real variations here are about playing time—everyone pretty much agrees about what Kotchman will do when he’s on the field. Also noteworthy is that all three sources project his BABIP to be between .288 and .296.
Best-case scenario: Kotchman’s .335 BABIP wasn’t a fluke—or, at least, the winds of good fortune are still blowing at his back. His plate discipline holds steady and he rediscovers some of the power potential he showed in his youth. No one mistakes him for Prince Fielder, but he’s one of the Tribe’s best hitters while providing the most reliable defense the Indians have seen at first base in years.
Worst-case scenario: Kotchman’s hit rate plummets and takes his whole game down with him. Already an ineffective hitter, his confidence is shaken and he overthinks his approach. His solid glove can’t make up for his anemic bat, and the Indians end up better off with Matt LaPorta.
Most likely scenario: If three experts all come to the same conclusion, they’re probably right. Kotchman will hold his own offensively as a slightly above-average hitter, and having a steady glove at first will be a godsend to the Tribe’s wormburning rotation. No one will mistake Kotchman for an All-Star and he’s not a long-term solution for a contending team, but he won’t be a liability on either side of the ball, and there’s some value in that.