Kotchman key to Mariners' infield D

Kotchman key to Mariners' infield D

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Every throw to first base that bounces in the dirt becomes a potential error -- unless the intended recipient happens to be Casey Kotchman.

In that case, an errant throw more times than not becomes an out.

"I don't know how many errors he has saved me," infielder Chone Figgins said, "but it's a lot."

The former Angels teammates are now sharing space in the Mariners clubhouse at the Peoria Sports Complex, and Figgins says Kotchman is one of the best-fielding first basemen he has ever seen.

"I grew up watching the Mets and Keith Hernandez," Figgins said, "and Kotch is a similar type of fielder. He has soft hands, quick feet and if you get the ball anywhere close to him, he'll catch it."

The Mariners are counting on pitching and defense to contend for a playoff spot this season, and the acquisition of Kotchman via a trade with the Red Sox on Jan. 7 demonstrates the emphasis being placed on defense.

The 27-year-old son of an Angels scout has handled 1,584 consecutive fielding chances without making an error, dating to June 20, 2008 in an Interleague game against the Phillies -- 186 games ago.

He has committed eight errors in 3,854 total chances, and his .998 career fielding percentage ranks first all-time among first basemen with at least 3,500 chances.

"He can really play first base and that is evident just watching him take ground balls, the fluidity of it," manager Don Wakamatsu said. "He has such a great feel."

Seattle has had one Gold Glove Award-winning first baseman in its 33-year history -- John Olerud in 2000, '02 and '03. And Kotchman, who has not won a Gold Glove, definitely has what it takes to get one.

"Defense is something I take a lot of pride in," he said. "When you pick a ball out of the dirt, you are saving the guy who threw it an error, saving your pitcher from throwing extra pitches, and keeping your team from having to get another out.

First Basemen with no errors in at least 90 games
Player Team Year Games
Steve Garvey Dodgers 1984 159
Kevin Youkilis Red Sox 2007 135
Casey Kotchman Braves/Red Sox 2009 114

"Once the ball leaves the other guy's hand, it's out of his control, so when you are able to pick him up, you feel good about it. I know the feeling."

The smooth, almost effortless way Kotchman goes after a baseball that is either thrown or hit is the byproduct of numerous hours fielding ground balls.

"My dad and mom were always throwing me balls, letting me dive around the yard having fun with it," he said. "I guess it ended up correlating into actually playing games from T-ball on up."

The best player on any youth team usually plays shortstop, and that's where Kotchman played until he was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school, when his coach realized that a left-handed shortstop would not work.

"Being left-handed, I had a choice of pitching, outfield or first base," he said. "I became a first baseman because you get more action than if you are in the outfield. You always have some kind of responsibility as a first baseman, because other than the pitcher and the catcher, you're getting the ball the most."

And so, with a new first baseman's glove on his right hand, Kotchman went to work at a new position under the tutelage of his dad, Tom, a longtime Angels scout and former Minor League manager.

"Instead of throwing balls to me, my dad would hit fungoes at me from third base, shortstop, second base," the younger Kotchman said. "A ball being hit is a lot harder to handle than a thrown ball because a bat can create more spin.

"That's how I got a feel for picking up throws in the dirt."

Veteran shortstop Jack Wilson said he has played with some top-of-the-line defensive first basemen during his nine-year MLB career and is looking forward to making throws to Kotchman.

"I have been lucky to play with guys like Kevin Young and Adam LaRoche [with the Pirates], and now Casey," he said. "When I read about the trade [for Kotchman], I was pretty excited knowing we would have someone over there who can really pick it.

"With a guy like Casey, you just put the ball in the vicinity and he'll take care of the rest. He has a reputation as being one of the best [defensive first basemen] in the game."

Between now and the Mariners' regular-season opener against the Athletics in Oakland, Kotchman will study how each of the infielders' throws react. Some might sink, other sail, and others might cut.

"As we progress through camp, I will ask them to do different things," Kotchman said. "I like to get a feel of what the ball does.

"I haven't taken that many throws from Wilson or [Jose] Lopez, but Figgins throws the ball straight, and deceptively hard."

To become even more adept at fielding low throws, Kotchman said he would ask for each of the Mariners infielders to purposely make throws into the dirt.

"You want them to feel comfortable with the guy over there," he said. "Their job is hard enough without having to worry about having to make a perfect throw all the time."

"Oh, I'm sure he'll get plenty of practice," Wilson said, grinning.

Third-base coach Mike Brumley played for Kotchman's dad in the Minor Leagues and has watched the son develop into a solid player.

"I have a long history with Casey, and [he has] a great mental makeup for the game," Brumley said. "He has such a good understanding where the ball is going, and I think guys throw better without stress.

"Having confidence in him being able to make a play on a ball you've thrown is huge."

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.