The Kozma Show

The St. Louis Cardinals won Game Three of their NLD Series against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday, taking a 2-1 lead in said series in the process. Besides Chris Carpenter, who pitched 5.2 scoreless (if not always dominant) innings, the player most directly responsible for the Cardinal victory — by Win Probability Added, I mean — was shortstop Pete Kozma, whose second-inning three-run homer (at .128 WPA) was the game’s single most decisive play and whose 0.11 WPA for the game was tops among Cardinal hitters.

Here’s how you, the reader — provided you’re not a Nationals fan, at least — feel about Pete Kozma, probably: you like him. Here’s why you like him, maybe: because he’s just a little guy. Or here’s why else, maybe: because he was in the minors until the end of August and is now the starting shortstop for a playoff team. Or here’s a third reason, perhaps: because he’s produced better offensively over the last month-plus in the majors than he did at any time, basically, during his previous five months in the very offensive Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

One other possible reason you like Pete Kozma is because you’re his mother — in which case, that’s really great how curious you are about advanced baseball analysis, Mrs. Kozma. Welcome.

Because I’m a nerd and you’re a nerd (except for you, Pete Kozma’s mother, who’s probably just a nice mother), I feel obliged to say this: Pete Kozma isn’t as good as he’s played since his late-August promotion. At no point in this post will I suggest that Pete Kozma is elite. Or, at least, I probably won’t say he is. Che sarà, and all that.

That said, Pete Kozma was pretty good in September and October. “How good was he?” is a question you’ve asked, maybe, but haven’t — because you do real, adult things during the day, like consulting — haven’t actually looked up.

Here, in the form of a table — and, specifically, a table of the top-five Cardinal hitters by WAR from September/October — is the answer to that question:

Pete Kozma 25 80 163 .423 2.6 1.4
Yadier Molina 26 110 126 .253 2.0 1.1
David Freese 25 87 137 .327 -0.1 0.7
Jon Jay 29 139 91 .352 1.1 0.7
Carlos Beltran 26 97 124 .328 0.1 0.6

At 1.4 WAR, Pete Kozma was — as anyone can see — was actually the best Cardinals field player in September and October.

In Kozma’s case, the -R- part of the above acronym (i.e. for replacement) is particularly relevant. Kozma is the Cardinals’ replacement for Rafael Furcal, the club’s Opening Day shortstop and the shortstop who played who played 121 games for the team this season and the shortstop who was their starting shortstop for their 2011 championship team. Furcal, though, left a late-August game with an apparent elbow injury. Tests revealed that the apparent injury was an actual injury, and that the actual injury was a torn ulnar collateral ligament — the sort of injury, that is, for which players generally receive Tommy John surgery.

“How will replacing Rafael Furcal (a real major-league shortstop) with Pete Kozma (a sorta-not-that-great-hitting minor-league shortstop) affect our ball club?” is likely a question that Cardinals GM John Mozeliak asked aloud, maybe even using hand gestures to represent parentheses.

The answer that he received — both from himself and from his closest advisers — was probably something like “Not that greatly.” Despite the fact that Furcal hadn’t been excellent, he was/is still an accomplished major leaguer. Furthermore, the team had sent a potential replacement in Tyler Greene to the Houston Astros literally just three weeks before. That left them (i.e. St. Louis) with two or three options — either Daniel Descalso (who’s probably stretched defensively at short) or, from Triple-A Memphis, either Ryan Jackson or Kozma.

Here is what Pete Kozma batted at Memphis this season in 500 plate appearances: .232/.292/.355. And here’s what Jackson did in 503 PAs, also at Memphis: .272/.334/.396. In neither case did the Cardinals have reason to think that they’d be able to match Furcal’s production. In fact, replacement level was probably a better-case (if not best-case) scenario at that point.

All of this, of course, was happening against the backdrop of a real-live playoff race. On August 31st, St. Louis was only 0.5 games ahead of Pittsburgh for the second wild-card spot. The Dodgers were just another game behind the Pirates. Which is to say, wins were at a premium. Rafael Furcal would likely be worth 0.5 wins over the course of September and October. Putting a replacement-level player in his stead would certainly not help the Cardinals.

Instead, what happened is this:

Pete Kozma 26 82 157 .415 2.7 1.4
Rafael Furcal 121 531 87 .289 -8.6 1.2

Rather than losing a half a win in losing Rafael Furcal, the Cardinals actually probably gained a win with Kozma’s performance over the last month-plus of the season. For a team that took the second wild-card spot by a mere two games, that kind of contribution (i.e. Kozma’s kind) was significant.

Now, Pete Kozma has hit a three-run home run in Game Three of the Cardinals NLDS with the NL East-winning Washington Nationals. Regardless of what Kozma will do, what he has done is to play a pretty significant role in the Cardinals run at a championship over the past month.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

22 Responses to “The Kozma Show”

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  1. astrostl says:

    As fortune would have it, all indications were that Jackson would be the for-now heir to Furcal. Kozma had come for coffee a couple of times and was generally considered a busted prospect – the most famous thing he had done in STL was make a throwing error which Pujols broke his wrist trying to field. Jackson had hit better at AAA, and has a rep as a defensive wiz. Roster issues prevented him from assuming a position immediately, Kozma slid in, and went on a tear. That’s baseball.

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  2. I took a look at Kozma today, detailing his minor league numbers by age. They temper the excitement.

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  3. Sam says:

    One interesting thing with Kozma is how low his BABIP has been in the minor leagues for the past few years. In the majors it’s obviously been astronomical. His minor league numbers could be extremely deflated due to lots of bad ball in play luck.

    Of course, that only puts him at like, the level of Ryan Jackson as a hitter, not the Honus Wagner type performance he’s put up.

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    • Felix says:

      In the small sample size that is his 2012, Kozma has 30.5% line drive rate (!) in the majors. If only he didn’t K nearly a quarter of the time.

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  4. chuckb says:

    Kozma’s not this good. Though he’s playing well right now, he reminds many of this guy: — a player Cards’ fans loved for a while and thought he had solved a middle infield problem and then fizzled out as quickly as he arrived.

    Hopefully, the Cards’ brass won’t believe their SS situation solved by Kozma’s month in the big leagues because players don’t go from being bad minor league hitters to good major league hitters. If anyone can find one example where this was true, I’d love to see it.

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  5. Antonio Bananas says:

    I live in Springfield and have talked to local journalists. Kozma was an asshole to most people. I don’t like him. That and if he had just caught the damn ball in Atlanta, none of that fiasco would have happened.

    As a player though, he’s sort of the prototypical Cards rookie. Kind of old to be considered a top prospect (though he was a top draft choice and was seen as a failure here at AA Springfield). However, he does the right stuff and magically gets hot in the playoffs. Freese, Jay, Craig, Kozma, Lynn. All these guys have a similar career path as far as age and ML level productivity. I almost wonder if it’s something the Cards do.

    Kozma: Called up at 23 and 24 for partial seasons
    Craig: partial seasons at 25 and 26, first full season at 27
    Jay: partial at 25, full at 26 and 27
    Freese: partials at 26 and 27, full (minus injuries) at 28 and 29
    Lynn: partial at 24, full at 25

    Obviously, this might just be how most players get called up. It’s just weird to me the amount of productivity that the Cards get from it. My theory is that the Cardinals maximize the value of each player by having their cheapest years be their age 26-29 seasons.

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    • chuckb says:

      Wait a minute…Freese, Craig, Lynn, and Jay are all above average major league players. They were all, also, quite productive minor league hitters. Kozma has never been a productive minor league hitter so the notion that he might turn into an above average-to-very-good major league hitter along the lines of Craig, Freese, or Jay is pretty unlikely.

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      • TRob says:

        Agreed. Those guys he mentions were all very productive minor league hitters, something that Kozma has never really been.

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        Kozma was considered a failure though. Like they thought the talent was always there.

        My point is all of those guys came up way too late to be considered top prospects, but have all performed well and I think st. Louis does it on purpose so they can pay guys league minimum or thereabouts for their age 25-28ish years.

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    • TRace says:

      Your analysis ignores the fact that Kozmanaut was drafted out of high school, while Craig, Jay, Freese and Lynn were all college players. Kozma had been marinating in the minors for the better part of 6 seasons, while the others took 3 to 4 years to finish the minors. Kozma was on the verge of being left off of the 40 man roster this winter. His performance has bought him another year in the organization, even if it is just a flash in the pan.

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      • Antonio bananas says:

        Like I’ve been saying, living in cardinal nation everyone likes to call these guys “young players”. They really aren’t. They are in what should be their prime. Kozma has always been a guy the organization felt wasn’t realizing the talent that was there.

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  6. stan says:

    First, this is the second time I’ve seen it published on fangraphs that Furcal had a torn ulnar ligament. That is not true. He may still get surgery but since the ligament isn’t torn that’s an open question.

    Second, this article fails to mention that it was only by happenstance that Kozma was called up as well. Jackson was the first (and logical) choice to replace Greene and would have been first to replace Furcal as well except that he had been sent down just a couple days before Furcal’s injury and couldn’t be called up again for 10 days. If not for that randon chance, Kozma would never have played in September, if he had been called up at all.

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  7. KJOK says:

    The Cards GM has admitted that Kozma was almost designated for assignment several times durint THIS season – not just left off the 40 man roster over the winter.

    That being said, he was a first round draft choice, so there could be some ‘hidden talent’ that he’s just now figuring out how to use (although I doubt it, but I can hope at least…)

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    • Antonio bananas says:

      This is exactly the general consensus. I don’t care that he’s been mediocre forever in the minors. The feeling was that the talent was there. Now he’s playing well as a mid 20s “young player”. Prototypical cards prospect of the past few years. Obviously, miller, martinez, jenkins, Wong, and taveras are legitimate prospects not just guys in their probably prime playing well.

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  8. Jamie says:

    More importantly, you were right. I work in consulting.

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