SAT Analogy—Shelley Duncan:Casey Kotchman

Did I just talk myself into this? Sure did.

With the signing of Casey Kotchman, Cleveland has finally made a move to patch over the black hole that was 1B in 2011. The Indians cumulative OPS at 1B last season was 763, about 30 points below league average. It appears the Indians have already decided to send Matt LaPorta back to Columbus, barring injuries anyway, and there's no reason to complain about that. However, it's at least worth diagnosing exactly how the Indians have upgraded the Cold Corner. I'm going to chart out the 2011 1B, plus Kotchman, both by their 2011 numbers and career numbers. Santana's numbers will be 1B-only, while I'll use total numbers of LaPorta (who was horrible as a DH/PH last season) and Duncan. For reference, the total AL split at first for 2011 was a .340/452 OBP/SLG with a 116 OPS+ and a 2.09 SO:BB.

2011:

Name PA OBP SLG OPS+ XBH SO:BB
Casey Kotchman 563 .378 .422 128 36 1.38
Matt LaPorta 385 .299 .412 97 35 3.78
Carlos Santana 272 .338 .451 115 30 1.88
Shelley Duncan 247 .324 .484 123 28 2.94

Career:

Name
PA
OBP
SLG
OPS+
XBH
SO:BB
Casey Kotchman
2891
.336
.398
98
211
1.20
Matt LaPorta
1008
.304
.397
93
83
2.54
Carlos Santana
272
.338
.451
115
30
1.88
Shelley Duncan
669
.313
.441
105
61
2.83

Let's run through each player's profile.

Kotchman's 2011 was his career year. Casey started in pro baseball with the Angels and was an uber-prospect by the 2005 BA list, when he was rated as #6 in all of baseball. He has struggled with injuries throughout his career but just as detrimental to fulfilling his promise has been a lack of power development. Kotchman's good looking swing and doubles power as a youngster never translated to homeruns and now he's a first basemen trying to get by on plate discipline and singles. He has a significant platoon split, preferring to bat against righties (754 vs 668). This split was present in 2011, albeit with both numbers much higher (838 vs 709)

2011 was a best-case-scenario for Kotchman, with good health, continued adequate plate control, and more hits on balls in play (much has been made of his .335 BABIP last season). It's unclear what led to the improvement in his game (if anything), but he did have vision correction prior to the season. Finally, Kotchman is considered to be an elite defensive first basemen and is clearly regarded as the best defender on this list.

Matt LaPorta is also a former top prospect but one cut from a very different cloth than Kotchman. In each of his minor league seasons, Kotchman never struck out more than he walked. The exact opposite is true of LaPorta. LaPorta's career minor league slugging percentage is .566 and he's gone yard once every 16 at-bats; Kotchman's corresponding numbers are .491 and a homerun every 42 at-bats. LaPorta is a much more prototypical first base prospect—he has genuine power and sells out often to take advantage of it. Unfortunately, LaPorta's prototypical profile brings with it prototypical problems: as LaPorta hit the majors he lost all ability to control the plate, likely a result of his extensive struggles with nearly all off-speed pitches, and his OBP tanked as his K's rose. LaPorta can still make the ball go 'BOOM', he just doesn't make enough contact for it to matter. LaPorta's platoon split is similar to Kotchman's, which is odd since LaPorta bats righty. For his career, he is at 725 vs RHP and 629 vs LHP.

Carlos Santana doesn't need much of an introduction. One of the top young hitters in the game, the Indians have decided to continue to play Santana behind the plate for the foreseeable future. He pounds lefties, for an 882 OPS, and hits more than passably against lefties, for a 795 OPS. Whoever sees the most time at 1B will be sitting relatively often in favor of Santana on his off days.

We come to Shelley Duncan. Duncan is a long-time organizational soldier type, as evidenced by the 355 AAA games he's already logged in his career. The Indians signed Duncan as a depth option at LF/1B/DH prior to the 2010 season and, finally free of the Yankees and their surfeit of bats, Shelley stumbled into 506 major league PAs over the last two seasons. That more than tripled what he'd received through the end of 2009. Finally given the chance to play a bit, Duncan did better than one might've predicted. In his age 30 and 31 seasons, he took those 506 PAs and posted a 771 OPS. His numbers aren't shockingly good, but they do approach the average 1B line I posted way back before the jump, and they're leaps and bounds better than the 702 OPS posted by the average AL LF.

Duncan is a big, oafish-looking, bat-only right-hander, and that sort of player tends to have a platoon split (hey, Matt LaPorta!) but Duncan's brief major league career indicates that, no, he can hit righties and lefties with equal adequacy. Ah, you say, but he's a career minor leaguer—those major league splits are likely inaccurate. I would've said the same thing, my friend, but the current incarnation of minor league splits indicates that Duncan has never struggled with a platoon split. That does not mean Duncan lacks significant flaws: most notably, he swings and misses a great deal. That's particularly alarming because of his age.

If you're thinking like I'm thinking, then you're going a little cockeyed. Already on the roster, the Indians are carrying a player who certainly appears capable of at least a 750 OPS against pitchers of the right and left-handed variety. Nothing in Duncan's pedigree says he couldn't do that consistently: it's where his MLEs have generally lived and below his 50th percentile PECOTA projection last season. In fact, entering last season, Duncan's 50th percentile PECOTA projection was better than Kotchman's 70th percentile PECOTA projection. The Indians just signed Kotchman to a $3M/year contract; Duncan will make approximately $500,000 this season.

So, what gives? We can produce a few rationales.

  • Duncan, a RHB, is viewed as a good platoon partner for three positions: 1B, DH, and LF (all set to be manned by LHB in 2012). That makes some sense on the surface except Duncan's career OPS against RHP is either better than or essentially the same as Brantley's and Kotchman's. Sure, Duncan can protect those guys, and Hafner, from lefties, but he can stick up for himself against the righties.
  • Duncan is viewed as bad enough defensively at 1B that he can't be considered as a regular there. Entirely possible—I can't speak to this. Duncan came up through the minors playing predominantly first but circumstances have led to him playing mostly outfield in the majors. Kotchman is, as previously stated, considered excellent at first. It wasn't long ago that the Indians infield defense became something of a laughingstock and it appears that the renewed emphasis on that area of the game will carry over into 2012.
  • The Indians have other plans for Duncan. I suspect this is the case, although I can't put my finger on exactly what those plans are. It's possible that the Indians think Duncan will be playing LF regularly as Brantley shifts to CF in a scenario where Sizemore is either DH'ing or sitting quite a bit. It's also possible that the Indians are going to get Duncan 500 ABs between LF, 1B, and RF. It's also possible that Brantley's hold on LF might be a lot less firm than some think.
  • The Indians believe Duncan, an older player with a lot of mileage, is about to crater. Entirely possible.
  • From the P-D: "He controls the strike zone and puts up a quality at-bat," said Antonetti. "He doesn't strikeout much and puts the ball in play. He does a good job managing his at-bats."

Obviously, this has gotten away from me a bit. However, I can't shake the feeling that the Indians have found real value with Shelley Duncan and it's a shame to not take advantage of it somehow. I don't mind the Kotchman signing but this was not a case, as it has been portrayed most of the offseason, of a club with no first basemen or right-handed bat available. When I really sat down and looked at this, I'm surprised there wasn't more of a push to simply hand Duncan the job and see how it goes. I certainly hope Duncan's on the roster on opening day, and I wouldn't predict he'll be cut. The Indians are generally pretty smart and the smart thing to do would be to find Duncan at-bats. If I were Michael Brantley, I'd be wondering where, and if, I'd be playing most of the season.

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