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White Sox Thu Aug 05 2010

Is Luck to Blame for Kotsay's Struggles?

SoxLogoSmall.jpegThis is one of those days when Ozzie Guillen looks like a genius.

Not 24 hours ago, the White Sox manager vociferously defended Mark Kotsay against media jackals who questioned why an aging journeyman with a .215 batting average and a .636 OPS was still starting at designated hitter instead of baby bull Dayan Viciedo.

Vindication came Thursday afternoon in Detroit, as the first-place Sox prevailed in 11 innings, 6-4, despite another ninth-inning collapse by Bobby Jenks. Kotsay went 3-for-5, including a two-run homer and a two-run triple in the 11th that helped Chicago take three of four games from the fading Tigers.

Maybe he heard the Sox were sniffing around free-agent slugger Carlos Delgado.

It all added up to an irresistible storyline, and undoubtedly it will give Ozzie even more confidence that Kotsay should stay in the lineup. But one game isn't enough to change the fundamental calculus of the decision, which has centered on a notion advanced by Ozzie and others without much hard evidence: Kotsay has been especially unlucky this season.

Give him more time, the thinking goes, and those balls will start falling in for hits.

"He should have better numbers than what he has," Ozzie said Wednesday. "He went through tough times with people making plays on him. ... He swings the bat good. He's hitting tough luck from the beginning."

Is this true? We live in a wonderful age when we don't have to take Ozzie's word for it. Memory is a funny thing, and just because the White Sox remember a bunch of times Kotsay hit a screaming line drive right at someone, that doesn't mean he's truly had worse luck than the average player.

In this case, though, the numbers do generally support the subjective notion that Kotsay has hit the ball well this season. His batting average on balls in play -- a statistic that correlates roughly with luck -- is a woeful .218, well below the average of .290 or .300. He certainly hasn't gotten any breaks.

At the same time, Kotsay's line-drive percentage is 15.2. Only nine (qualifying) players* in the majors have hit fewer line drives this year.

*Among them are Juan Pierre, unsurprisingly, at 14.1 and Carlos Quentin, who like Kotsay has combined a 15.2 line-drive percentage with a .219 BABIP. On the other hand, we see here how a speedy runner can to some degree overcome his luck, as Pierre has a .283 BABIP despite never hitting the ball sharply, while slowpokes Kotsay and Quentin can't beat out a hit to save their lives.

As lame as it sounds, it's been a little of both with Kotsay this season: He's been unlucky, but he also isn't exactly tearing the cover off the ball. Since his late-20s peak from 2000-04, he has been at best a league-average hitter.

A little more luck might make him tolerable, but he'll still be a weak link in the Sox lineup.

 
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