Always Room on the Kotchman Bandwagon

I was out and about last night watching the Tampa Bay Rays game, and a patron at a local sports bar was more than vocal and adamant that “ players come here ( to the Rays) to be re-discovered” by Major League Baseball. He went on about how past Rays players like Jose Canseco, Dwight Gooden and Carlos Pena came here on the downside of their careers, then found their own magic elixir again then ride the accelerating curve of their new success out of town as their wave began to crest.

Even though 2 of the 3 players mentioned by this guy had checkered pasts, and limited futures after departing Tampa Bay, I began to see his cloudy vision. That by being out of the media’s main line of fire and eyesight, devoid of the daily badgering of their pasts, these guys again found their groove under the palm trees and dome in this tropical hamlet.

Tampa Bay has seen several of their ballplayers reconstruct and reconfigure their careers under the Teflon dome of Tropicana Field. I remember fondly back in 2007 when Carlos Pena signed to play First Base for the Rays, baseball people scoffed, called Pena a “minor league product” and basically thought the Rays took a step backwards in their pursuit of an impact player.

Pena only went on to win the 2007 Comeback Player of the Year award, and sandwiched that meaty accomplishment between a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger and a share of a American League Home Run title dolloped on top. For once, maybe it was good that the molasses slow South hides this treasure for so long.

Who is to say that same lightning will not strike again in 2011 for the Rays? Wonder if the rest of the baseball world know we are the lightning capital of the World? How else can you explain the jolt of energy and excitement from the rest of the baseball world as so many around the country are finally boarding the Casey Kotchman bandwagon.

I remember early on when he was promoted by the Rays from Triple-A, his ESPN Fantasy ownership hovered around 4.7 percent and less than a week ago Kotchman had finally peaked above the 10% ownership mark.

How in the world could such a superb defender with a tendency to hit for a high average get overlooked for so long? Didn’t any of the Kotchman magic remain with him when he got his first hurrah as a Los Angeles Angel? Did Kotchman somehow get lost in the yearly shuffle with his luggage picking up stickers from ATL, beantown and Seattle?

Sure he became more of a bit player/defensive rogue in those towns because of higher paid players in front of him, but he still had the glove that was always destined to trap everything hit or thrown his direction. Why is it now that suddenly Kotchman is the toast of baseball when he has been doing it all along, but was under the radar.

Was it the fact his first career walk-off homer recently against the Kansas City Royals might have suddenly awoken the rest of the baseball world with gusto that Kotchman is still alive and well in the MLB. Or did the baseball talking heads just figure that Kotchman’s stay in Tampa Bay would be short-lived, so the escalating Kotchman storyline did not warrant any special attention by the Nation-wide media baseball pundits.

Now that Kotchman is producing at a robust .339 batting average trailing only Red Sox slugger Adrian Gonzalez (.350) in the American League batting title race, why is everyone so enamored that Casey still has a bat?

Could it be his 4 home runs in the last 6 games that has pushed his name upon the lips of the usual fan? Or possibly the fact Kotchman is on fire with 9multi-hit efforts, 3 three-hit games and is batting over .400 in the first 3 innings this season., which is the highest average in the majors. Had Kotchman really fallen that far off the MLB radar that people are surprised? Well, I’m not.

Just like Pena did in 2007, Kotchman started off at Triple-A to begin the season, not sure of his future role, if any with the Rays. With a change of heart by the Rays, Kotchman now could become the only player in the last 50 years to hit above .300 with enough at bats to qualify for the batting title after starting the season on a minor league roster. (for the stat heads, the last guy to do it was Cleveland Indian OF Miguel Dilone in 1981).

Even more amazing is the pure fact Kotchman has improved his average by 122 points from his .217 average for the 2010 season. Among hitters with 300 plate appearances in 2 consecutive seasons, only 1 AL player in history has finished with a higher average improvement from 1 season to the next: New York Giants OF George Burns, who improved his average by 126 points back in 1917-18. Amazingly, Kotchman has a solid chance to also eclipse that long standing record.

I remember writing a blog post back on January 28, 2011 about the signing of Kotchman that so many others around baseball just seemed to laughed about. Kotchman was seen as a minor leaguer at best, never going to be a consistent member of the Rays offense. My how those same people are yelling to the mountain tops now about the “Magic of Kotch” and his miracle rejuvenation. Doesn’t the same reversal of opinions remind you of a certain other former Rays First Baseman?

How many people knew that when Kotchman went 0-3 versus Kansas City last night he snapped an 8-game hitting streak. This from a guy that most around baseball viewed strictly as a late inning defensive replacement. But Kotchman’s rise goes deeper than just a recent spiffy .339 batting average.

He ranks 3rd in the AL on the road with a .324 average, 2nd in the league against right-handers (.347) and 5th in on-base percentage (.398). But most people still only know him for his glove. They do not know that Kotchman has reached base safely in banked 27 extra base hits in the last 68 games after only producing 5 extra base shots in his first 35 games.

Oh, and about that defense, Kotchman has committed only one error this season, back on July 16th against Boston. His previous error occurred an incredible 102 games games ago, back on August 21, 2010 when Kotchman was wearing the Seattle Mariners colors.

Want to talk value. Kotchman is leading American League First Baseman for the 4th consecutive season in fielding average (.999). For his career he has committed only 10 errors in 5,683 chances for a .998 fielding percentage, which is tops among any and all Major League players EVER with 500 games played at First Base. And all for a 2011 Rays base salary of $ 750,000. Again kind of like another Rays First Baseman trying to reestablish his worth on the MLB market.

I am happy that Kotchman is getting this kind of positive attention again. He deserves every ounce of it. We do not have to have a first baseman who cranks out 30 home runs when we got one who can produce runs, provide a solid wall of defense and keeps a low profile.

In their 14 season existence, the Rays have been lucky to have the talents of players like Travis Lee, Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez and Pena who have all manned that critical first point in the Rays defense triangle. Some how I think over the next few weeks the media talking heads will finally begin to spout the initial comparisons between Pena’s 2007 “comeback” Rays season and 2011 “Magic of Kotch” phenomenon.

The media hype is sure to come fast and furious, possibly to the point of overkill, but that is what baseball does. It seems to want to showcase the success stories, those who found their way back to the top. Kotchman can be proud of the work he has done as a member of the Rays. Surely in the next few years kids will tell of the day they saw Kotchman launch one into the stands for a walk-off homer, or provide an incredible play at first that rivals anyone.

Just for those curious, as of today, Kotchman has seen his ESPN Fantasy Baseball stock rise to a season high 30.7 percent team ownership. Possibly the rest of the country is now buying tickets to board the Kotchman bandwagon. I hope they remain on board for the entire journey, because I still feel deeply that the best is yet to come in 2011 for Kotchman.

What else can you say about a guy who even as a defense against an Evan Longoria shaving cream pie? In the end, Kotchman will lace up his cleats, button his uniform top and oil his glove just as he has done so many times before both as a youth and as a rejuvenated member of the Rays …back here in good old Tampa Bay.


I’m on the wagon!

I sometimes think it is funny guys seem to go into a type of MLB protection when they come here, then the media is surprised when they do something great and magical again on the field. Kotchman is a great example of a guy changing scenery and finding that past success. Plus, it couldn’t of happen to a better guy. He is a great team mate and a positive influence on this young team. I hope they re-sign him to an extended deal.

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