When Seattle traded for Casey Kotchman on Jan. 7, the general reaction was a shrug of the shoulders. Of course the Mariners acquired a guy who is considered one of the best defensive first basemen in the league; Jack Zduriencik has shown almost as much affection for quality glove guys as he has for his wife and kids.
However, the M’s don’t just expect Kotchman to play a nice first base in his age-27 season. The coaching staff also believes it can tap into some of the offensive potential he showed earlier in his career, and as a left-handed hitter, they believe that the friendly right-field porch in Safeco Field should help him finally deliver on some of his potential power.
The park is much friendlier to left-handed bats than right-handed hitters, who suffer the most from its asymmetrical alignment. However, there’s one problem in hoping that Kotchman takes advantage of the proximity of the right field wall -– he prefers to pound the ball into the ground.
For his career, 52.7 percent of all of his balls in play have been hit on the ground. Last year, Kotchman hit the ball in the air at the same rate as guys like Scott Podsednik and Melky Cabrera. In fact, among first basemen with at least 400 plate appearances in 2009, Kotchman hit the fewest fly balls by far –- his 29.5 percent mark was nearly five percent behind Nick Johnson, the next runner-up.
If the Mariners are going to contend in 2010, they’re going to have to get offensive production from Kotchman, and he won’t be able to take advantage of how Safeco Field is configured by driving the ball into the ground. Hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo’s biggest job this spring may just be to convince Kotchman to get under the ball once in a while.
Dave Cameron is managing editor of FanGraphs.