Coming into the Tampa Bay Rays 2011 season, the first base position appeared to belong to journeyman Dan Johnson, who had a strong showing in the late 2010 season. Unfortunately for Johnson, he started the season very cold and could not fend off the surging Casey Kotchman.
Johnson's nightmare has turned into Kotchman's feel-good story. Casey, a Florida native and Seminole HS graduate, has seemingly resurrected his career and secured the larger half of a platoon with Johnson. His batting average sits at an impressive .352 and advanced stats have his hitting at 52% above league average (per wRC+, entering last night).
However, beneath the impressive numbers lays the Magic of Kotch -- an impressive and troubling display of unsustainable luck.
All of the major baseball statistics sites have slightly different batted ball data -- the data which classifies whether a ball was a line drive, ground ball, or fly ball. Each of the three batted ball types have a lot of nuance and perspective issues. What may seem like a line drive in one press box may look like a fly ball or ground ball in another. As a result, different data collectors will see the same event, but record different results.
A player's batting average typically stays the same on these different hit types over the course of their career. In general, batters will hit about .230 on grounders, .140 on fly balls, and .700 on line drives (this excludes home runs, in which hitters obviously hit 1.000).
For Kotchman's career, he has hit just about what we might expect from an average major league hitters: .180 on grounders, .160 on fly balls, and about .700 on line drives. However, in 2011, he has seen unprecedented good fortunes:
Thus far, both Baseball-Reference (B-R) and FanGraphs (FG) agree: Casey Kotchman has been producing on ground balls. Of his 61 balls in play, 35 -- the vast majority -- have been ground balls. Despite that, he has collected 11 hits and 2 doubles.
More troubling, however, is his performance on line drives. B-R says all 13 of his liners have gone for hits, and FG says one of those liners was a fly ball. Either way, Kotchamn's line drives have found a lot of holes -- something not even the best players in history could maintain.
All together, the Rays first baseman finds himself sporting a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) about 100 points higher (.367) than his career norm (.270) -- despite not hitting more line drives than before. This undoubtedly means Casey Kotchman has been the recipient of some undoubtedly good fortunes.
Eventually, his batting average and wRC+ will start to cool off as his grounders go for more outs and double plays, but -- hopefully for the Rays -- he will find himself still hitting around league average and earning his keep with sharp defensive play. Otherwise, Dan Johnson may get his second chance at resurrection.