Melvin’s Euphoria: Kottaras to Oakland

The Brewers designed backup catcher George Kottaras for assignment last week, and he has now been traded to the As for longtime minor league reliever Fautino De Los Santos. Oakland manager Bob Melvin sounds totally pumped:

I really don’t know much about him… I’ve seen some of the numbers, and know he has a high on-base (percentage) for a guy that’s hitting 200-something.

Once the buzz has worn off, what are the As getting in Kottaras, and what role might he play?

I will be focusing on the As’ side of this trade, but it is worth noting that this is a nice little trade for the Brewers, too. With Jonathan Lucroy firmly entrenched as the starter and signed long-term, and defensive specialist (and magic man) Martin Maldonado now in the big leagues, Kottaras did not really have a place on the roster. The Brewers need to be looking to the future, and three catchers is not part of that. De Los Santos is not exactly a super-duper relief prospect any more, and control probably always will be an issue. However, those crazy strikeout rates make him a potentially useful bullpen piece worth getting for a catcher that was out of the door, anyway.

Kottaras’ number, howevers, are pretty good on the surface. The former Padres and Red Sox farmhand has a career 97 wRC+ — more than good enough offense for a catcher. While he has a high (but not astronomically high) strikeout rate and low batting average, as the .221/.326/.402 line indicates, he takes a good number of walks and has some power. His 122 wRC+ (.209/.409/.360) this season is his best yearly offensive line of his career, and as the strange “slash line” indicates, includes an eye-popping 25 percent walk rate.

That walk rate is not excessively influenced by hitting eighth in front of the pitcher: about half (317) of his career plate appearances (601) have come in the eighth spot. His career line there is .210/.317/.375, not all that different from his overall line. ZiPS RoS projects him for a .314 wOBA the rest of the season, which is just about what it projected him for prior to the season (.315). Steamer had him at .318 before the season. As mentioned above, that is very useful for a catcher, so it might seem that the Brewers are giving up a bit too easily on him, even with Maldonado ready.

Two things are worth noting in this respect: first, the projected offensive line has a great deal of uncertainty around it. I like projections systems, probably too much, and Steamer and ZiPS in particular are good ones. However, they can only work with the data they are given. Kottaras has only 601 major-league plate appearances in his career over five seasons (mostly the last four). His career high in a season was 250 in 2009, and his next-highest so far is 123 in 2011. In other words, there is not a ton of data to draw on for the projection systems. There is always plenty of uncertainty with projections, but Kottaras’ projections in particular involve a ton of regression to the mean. I do not know specifically how ZiPS and Steamer regress Kottaras. If we think about one season of wOBA needing to be regressed against 220 plate appearances of league average — well, Kottaras only exceeded that number once.

Second, the population to which Kottaras’ projection should be regressed is not exactly a hot-hitting one. He is not only a catcher, but a backup catcher. That is not to say that projection system cannot take such things into account — ZiPS and Steamer may well do so. It is worth remembering, though, when looking at Kottaras’ numbers. The point is simply that it is pretty unlikely that Kottaras is another Mike Napoli.

The rap on Napoli in his pre-Rangers days, of course, was that his defense was so terrible that he really could not play catcher in more than a part-time role. While Napoli held his own defensively once he got to Texas (even if he still is not making anyone forget Ivan Rodriguez), Kottaras not only lacks Napoli’s power to make people forget about his glove with a hot bat, but his abilities behind the plate are likely worse. Kottaras’ main problem is that he cannot throw out runners.

Just looking at Kottaras’ raw defensive numbers is a bit deceptive, because they come in very limited playing time. Napoli, considered by most to a poor defender, is nine runs below average for his career in controlling the running game according to DRS. Kottaras is ten runs below average. However, Napoli’s rating comes over more than 4200 innings behind the plate. Kottaras’ rating comes in under 1300. So no, Oakland fans do not need to be planning on using “The Rifleman” as Kottaras’ nickname.

All of this may give an overly negative impression. Being “worse than Mike Napoli” is hardly an insult. Kottaras is not likely cut out to be a full-time starter due to his problematic arm and a bat that probably is not quite as good as it looks. However, even with the qualifications given above, the bat is still more than useful relative to most part-time catchers, enough so that the glove will not kill a team.

More importantly in Oakland’s case, they are a team with limited resources who find themselves in the hunt for the playoffs. They are not going to be trading for Cliff Lee, but if they have a chance to upgrade their team at a low cost, they should do it. A few years back, say, in 2009, Kurt Suzuki looked like one of the more underrated catchers in the game, with a close-to-league-average bat and a good glove.

Suzuki’s bat has gone downhill since then, going from “at least he’s only a catcher” in 2010 and 2011 to outright disaster in 2012. He is very likely better than 43 wRC+ he has put up so far this year, but that is not saying much. Bringing aboard a low-cost alternative like Kottaras with a bit of offensive potential to spell Suzuki against right-handed pitching is a decent move for the Athletics not only for this year, but if they like what they see, for next year or more, as well. as Kottaras will just be moving into his second year of arbitration (The guaranteed portion of Suzuki’s contract expires after 2013).

The trade makes sense for both Oakland and Milwaukee given the spots they find themselves at this stage of the season. Kottaras can help the As, but fans should not get overly excited based just on his numbers.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.