Saturday, January 26, 2013

Taming the Wild

George Kottaras
Today the Kansas City Royals announced that they had claimed catcher George Kottaras off of waivers. Kottaras isn't a household name, but the move made me look into whether this was a good fit, or whether the Royals had another motive. Kottaras has played at least part-time in the Majors since 2009, playing in a career high 85 games last season. In his limited role, Kottaras has faced mostly right-handed pitching. He bats from the left-side, and has the typical platoon splits of a hitter with tools at the plate, but who has difficulty hitting MLB breaking balls off of lefties. Kottaras began the 2012 season in Milwaukee, but half way through the season, the Brewers traded him to the Oakland Athletics. The Athletics recently participated in a three-way trade that sent Michael Morse to Seattle and John Jaso to Oakland. Jaso's value has been written about extensively, but lost in that deal was Kottaras.

 Kottaras is an average hitter, with a career wOBA of .322. On the other hand, over the last two seasons, as Kottaras has played more games, his OPS+ has been above average, 107 in 2011 and 108 in 2012. He hasn't hit many home runs, but his isolated power split is vast. Kottaras has posted a .209 ISO against right-handed pitching but only a .129 ISO vs. lefties. While this fact isn't dissimilar from many left-handed hitters, a closer look using pitch F/X data shows that Kottaras has an affinity to hit pitches in the upper portion of the strike zone against right-handed pitching for power. In fact, despite the adage that left-handed hitters are good low-ball hitters, Kottaras seems to be a better hitter against balls that are up in the strike zone against both righties and lefties. Overall, Kottaras looks like a hitter who is beginning to figure some things out at the plate. He is able to get on base against both righties and lefties, but shows impressive power numbers against only righties. This combination is enough to get him a back-up catching job, but I think something else caused the Royals to snag the former Athletic off of waivers.

Kottaras isn't a great defensive catcher, posting a slightly negative defensive rating according to Fangraphs in 2012. In fact, he has never posting a positive defensive rating. Fangraphs calculates their defensive for catchers based on two major statistics, rSB and RPP, with rSB accounting for a catcher's need to throw out base runners well and RPP accounting for a catcher's ability to block balls in the dirt. Teams that have pitchers who don't have good pick-off moves or are slow to the plate need catchers with good rSB's in order to counteract their pitchers' deficiencies. If a team's pitching staff has pitchers with erratic control and propensities for throwing breaking balls with lots of movement, said team would want a catcher with good RPP numbers. While Kottaras hasn't posted very good rSB numbers, his RPP numbers have been positive since 2010. In fact, since 2010, Kottaras ranks 13th amongst all MLB catchers in RPP, ahead of names like Jonathan Lucroy, John Buck, and Kurt Suzuki, and just behind Ivan Rodriguez, Buster Posey, and Jason Kendall. Given these numbers, a team whose pitchers have a proclivity for being wild would benefit far more from Kottaras's services as opposed to a pitching staff with pinpoint control.

Given Kottaras' talents for blocking balls in the dirt, it stands to reason that the Brewers wouldn't want to let him leave, especially since the Brewers' pitching staff was 9th in the league in wild pitches in 2012 and 3rd in the league in wild pitches since 2010. On the other hand, in 2012, both other catchers on the Brewers' roster, Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado also posted positive RPP's, making Kottaras expendable, but not worthless. In fact, it's that value that the Kansas City Royals may have picked up on. This offseason, the Royals made a significant trade, acquiring Wade Davis and James Shields from the Rays in exchange for a dynamic package of prospects. Both Davis and Shields will make immediate impacts, Shields as their ace pitcher, and Davis as either a back of the rotation starter or right-handed reliever out of the pen. In addition, the Royals also added righty Ervin Santana to their rotation. Santana is a strikeout pitcher with a hard fastball and knee-buckling slider that often ends up in the dirt. Shields and Santana both ranked in the 21 pitchers in the Majors since 2010 in wild pitches, and since 2008 Shields, Santana, and fellow Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar have ranked in the top 30 in wild pitches. Overall, it seems as the Royals would disproportionately benefit from a catcher who is above average at blocking balls in the dirt, especially since if Kansas City is going to make the playoffs for the first time since 1985 every positive addition, no matter how small, will make a difference.

Salvador Perez
Kansas City now has a dynamic duo of backstops, with both Kottaras and young stud Salvador Perez on the roster. Perez is the better hitter of the two, and has better overall defensive numbers. In fact, Perez excels defensively in areas at which Kottaras is lacking, and visa versa. Perez has a very strong arm, and very good mechanics behind the plate, but is just below average in blocking balls in the dirt. Since overall defensive ratings for catchers weight throwing out base runners as more important than blocking balls in the dirt, Perez looks like the better of the two, but by adding Kottaras into the mix, it gives the Royals affordable and talented defense behind the plate. Kottaras also adds some more veteran experience, a left-handed bat with good power, and allows the Royals not to stress Perez too much without giving up too much production. Look to see Kottaras play predominantly against right-handed pitching, but more importantly, look for him to catch when James Shields and Ervin Santana take the mound. I'm in no way saying that it is absolute, especially given that Salvador Perez's RPP numbers aren't awful, and given his age, there is the possibility that his RPP numbers can improve. For the time being, the Royals see Kottaras' skills as solid value added, especially since his 2013 salary is only $1 million and he isn't a free agent until the 2016 season.

Don't overlook signings or pickups like this one. Numerous other teams could have benefited from even 80 games worth of George Kottaras. One specific team that comes to mind is the Chicago White Sox. White Sox pitchers have thrown the 3rd most wild pitches in the Majors since 2010, and the team recently lost veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski to free agency. Moreover, given Pierzynski's absence, the team is considering using youngster Tyler Flowers as their dominant catcher in 2013. Adding a more veteran left-handed hitting catcher who can handle erratic pitching would seem prudent. The White Sox play in the same division as the Royals, the Sox finished one spot ahead of KC in 2012, and they haven't undergone nearly as many positive renovations to their roster as the Royals have done. So, picking up Kottaras not only benefits the Royals directly, but also indirectly benefits them by not allowing the White Sox to pick him up. Who's to say the Sox would have picked up Kottaras, but he does fit their team incredibly well. Look for pitchers like James Shields and Ervin Santana to have slightly better strikeout numbers than they did in 2012. Some of that will be due to moving to a less talented division, but some may also come from their ability to throw any pitcher to get a hitter out without worrying that the ball may get away from their catcher. While trading for Shields and Santana were sexier and more productive moves, both come with risks, which the Royals are lessening by adding Kottaras to the mix. It's possible that the Royals will make the playoffs for the first time since the 1980's in 2013, but the odds are against them, so it's a good thing that George Kottaras, the forgotten catcher, now dons a royal and white uniform.

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