By all accounts, Casey Kotchman is having a disappointing season. No one was excited when the Indians signed the 29-year-old first baseman this winter, but he was nonetheless the highest-profile free agent Cleveland signed before the season. At the very least he projected as an upgrade over Matt LaPorta who would hold his own at the plate and give the Tribe a boost in the field, making him a valuable asset to a team without an obvious plan for first base.
Things haven’t gone according to plan. Kotchman entered Monday’s action hitting just .221/.285/.333 (75 OPS+) with five homers and 23 RBI. And his glove hasn’t made up for the shortcomings of his bat—every major valuation system puts Kotchman below replacement level thus far, with FanGraphs pegging him as on pace to cost Cleveland a full two-and-a-half wins compared to the production the team would get from a Triple-A player or a Rule 5 draftee. With numbers like that, some might be surprised that the Indians have kept him around at all, let alone leaving him in the starting lineup.
Between Kotchman’s prolonged slump and the team’s failure to give their best other option a real chance, first base—usually seen as a premium offensive position—is arguably the biggest hole on the roster. Barring a major cold streak in the next few weeks, it seems likely that the Indians will seek to acquire a first baseman before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. But is such an upgrade really necessary, or should the Tribe stick with Kotchman at first base?
In order to assess Kotchman’s fitness to play everyday, we have to look not at his overall numbers but how he’s gotten there. Part of his problem this year is plate discipline: his six percent walk rate and 13 percent strikeout rate would both be the second-worst marks of his career, while Pitchf/x has him chasing nearly a third (31 percent) of pitches he’s seen out of the zone—his highest since tracking began in 2007. It’s no coincidence that his offensive numbers are down when his K/BB ratio has hit 2:1 for the first time in nine MLB seeasons.
Kotchman is offsetting some of those losses with improved power. He’s on pace for a career-high 15 homers, and his .126 ISO (i.e., about an extra base every eight at-bats) is his best since 2008. Making the added pop more impressive is that he’s shown these improvements while posting one of the worst batting averages of his career—most commonly used power numbers are biased towards good contact hitters (more hits means more extra-base hits).
But the most intriguing facet of Kotchman’s decline is his .230 batting average on balls in play. A number that low is usually considered to be unsustainable and thus signifies that the hitter will likely benefit from positive regression to the mean as the season progresses. But Kotchman’s history suggests he could be an outlier—he posted a .229 BABIP in 2010 and his hit rate has been at .283 or below in seven of his nine MLB seasons. Plus, anecdotally Kotchman has hit an unusual number of weak grounders and pop-ups, suggesting that his extremely low BABIP is largely a reflection of his true talent rather than statistical noise.
Still, we would be unwise not to project some regression to the mean for Kotchman’s hit rate. Holding all other factors constant and plugging his .277 BABIP into the Simple WAR Calculator (v. 1.1), he comes out with a projected 96 wRC+. That would make him a slightly below-average but certainly serviceable hitter, though he’d fail to produce the gaudy numbers typically expected of first basemen. Note, though, that expecting his hit rate to match his career mark is fairly optimistic considering that he hasn’t looked as good at the plate as he has in the past, and that that projection is essentially what Kotchman’s expelled predecessor Matt LaPorta produced last year (93 wRC+).
A BABIP adjustment alone would bring Kotchman up to about replacement level, depending on which WAR model you prefer. But there’s another factor in play: defense. The sabermetric fielding stats disagree on his prowess in the field so far, with UZR (the most popular) pegging his defense as more than three runs below the average first baseman. There’s an inherent danger to judging a player based only on firsthand observation, but anyone who’s seen the Indians play this year knows that having Kotchman’s glove at first base is a huge boost for a team with a groundball-heavy pitching staff and an otherwise mediocre defensive infield.
It’s safe to say that the defensive metrics cannot fully appreciate Kotchman’s ability to of snare line drives and pick off-the-mark throws from other fielders, turning what would otherwise be infield hits or throwing errors into putouts. He hasn’t exactly looked like a Gold Glover in the field, but there’s no doubt that his glove has been a positive impact that (at the risk of sounding like a closed-minded curmudgeon) the sabermetric models do not understand.
Adjust Kotchman’s 2012 statistics for a higher BABIP and award him some bonus points for defense and Kotchman is probably about a half-win (0.5 WAR) player over a full season—or, in English, he has some value in a reserve role but he isn’t cut out for an everyday job in the majors. So yes, Kotchman better than his numbers and we’ll probably see him make a minor rebound as the season goes on, but he really shouldn’t be an everyday first baseman for a contending team.