Four years ago, the Rays discovered a hidden gem. It took a last-minute injury for them to even place Carlos Pena on the roster, but that turned out to be one of the most beneficial injuries in team history. In 2007 Pena broke out, hitting 46 runs and producing 51 runs above average. His 167 wRC+ ranked fourth in the majors. While he never reached that level again, he still turned in two more high quality seasons and helped lead the Rays to the AL pennant in 2008. All of that from a guy who originally didn’t even crack the 2007 roster.
This year the Rays have another breakout on their hands, and once again it comes from a player who didn’t make the team out of spring training. Casey Kotchman started the season in Durham, but he played only one game for the Rays AAA team. Manny Ramirez‘s abrupt retirement paved the way for Kotchman’s recall, and Dan Johnson‘s ineffectiveness opened a spot for him in the starting lineup. He’s taken full advantage, and is currently working on his finest season as a major leaguer. But unlike Pena, it’s unclear whether Kotchman’s improvements are replicable in the future.
Before his 2007 breakout Pena was a serviceable player. While playing with the Tigers from 2002 through 2005 he produced a 109 wRC+ and a .217 ISO. A slow start to his 2005 season, in which he hit .181/.307/.283 in 150 PA, apparently hurt his standing with the Tigers. Even though he hit .286/.345/.662 in 145 PA after returning, the Tigers still released him in the spring of 2006. He got only a small shot in the majors that year, with the Red Sox, and while he hit well enough, it wasn’t enough to get a major league deal for 2007.
During the 2007 season everything changed for Pena. His power was the most noticeable improvement, thanks to the 46 homers. Indeed, his ISO spiked that season, from his .216 career mark to .345. His walk rate spiked as well, from a 10.9% career rate all the way to 16.8%. He cut down on his swing and miss rate, and by extension his strikeout rate. At the same time his BABIP remained almost exactly in line with his .298 career mark. While he likely wasn’t a true-talent .345 ISO hitter, there were indications that at least some of his improvements were real. It’s not as though he was simply the beneficiary of a season in which every hit fell in.
Kotchman, on the other hand, is all BABIP. Entering the season he had a .273 BABIP in 2,088 career AB, but this year that has surged a hundred points, to .372 in 340 AB. But at the same time, none of his other numbers have moved. His 8% walk rate is actually a tick below his 8.2% rate entering this season. His ISO, .138, is just five points ahead of his .133 career rate. His swinging strike rate is right in line with his career average, and his strikeout rate is actually up a point. His batted ball profile hasn’t changed at all either, with the exception of a few more line drives than fly balls (and we know the tenuous relationship between the two). If we kept all of his other number steady and just subtracted out singles to lineup with his career BABIP, he’d be hitting .252/.320/.391, which is almost exactly his career average.
There is a chance that some of Kotchman’s BABIP improvements are real. He did undergo an eye procedure this past winter that he says has left his vision “pristine.” Perhaps the improved vision will lead to him squaring up more balls and hitting more singles in the future. It won’t be to the tune of a .372 BABIP — only 86 players have done that even once since 1950, and only 20 have done it more than once — but perhaps he can maintain his peripherals with a BABIP of around .300. That would make him slightly more valuable, but it still wouldn’t place him among the better first basemen in the league. Without power, and without an above average walk rate, he’ll likely revert to his normal, below-average self in 2012.
Twice now the Rays have realized breakout seasons from familiar first basemen. Pena’s 2007 breakout seemed real enough. He was an average player before that, and he made real, skill-based improvements when he latched on with the Devil Rays. Kotchman, on the other hand, was below average before coming to the Rays and has improved in just one way: BABIP. He’s at a level now that only a small fraction of players have ever reached for a full season, and one that less than 1% of players have done multiple times. It’s a nice breakout, and it will likely earn him a decent contract this off-season. But unlike Pena, the chances of him coming close to replicating this performance is very low.