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Memories of Mark Kotsay as an A’s player

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The A’s new manager used to play for the team. Let’s reminisce!

ALDS Game 2: Oakland A’s v Minnesota Twins
Kotsay slides in safely for an ALDS inside-the-park homer
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have a new manager in Mark Kotsay, and as a fun bonus, he used to play for the team. He spent four seasons with the A’s as an outfielder from 2004-07.

For some folks that might seem like just yesterday, but 2007 was a decade and a half ago. Many younger and/or newer fans might have no memory of Kotsay as a player, much less roaming the center field grass at the Coliseum. Let’s look back at some history!

To begin, Kotsay was a joy to watch. His defense was fantastic, combining pristine fundamentals with maximum effort to sprint and jump and dive for catches, and his strong arm racked up assists. At the plate he put in professional at-bats, resulting in lots of contact and decent power. At all times he was hustling. And he did it in style, with cool sideburns and flashy shades. Even his bobblehead has sunglasses.

***

When the A’s acquired Kotsay, he was already an established veteran with the pedigree of a No. 9 overall draft pick. He debuted with the Marlins in 1997 and spent a few years there as a strong defender in RF, then was traded to the Padres and blossomed into a plus hitter and plus defender in CF. By the end of 2003 he’d been an everyday player for six straight summers, averaging around 3 WAR per year and still entering his prime in his late-20s.

Meanwhile, Oakland was coming off four straight postseason appearances, but they’d need a lot more Moneyball magic to keep it going as free agency continued to take bites out of the roster. This time it was shortstop Miguel Tejada and closer Keith Foulke leaving, to be replaced by the next big prospect (Bobby Crosby) and the next bullpen experiment (Arthur Rhodes).

The A’s furthered the retooling of their roster with the Kotsay trade, sending two mainstays to San Diego in catcher Ramon Hernandez and outfielder Terrence Long. Both had been everyday players for the past four seasons, but their salaries were beginning to rise with two years left on each of their contracts, and only one was still playing well.

Hernandez was coming off an All-Star campaign, and he authored a major highlight that October with his walk-off bunt in the ALDS. On the other hand, Long had a disappointing summer and struck out looking to end that playoff series, and reportedly wanted out of Oakland anyway after growing unhappy with management.

It was a very 2003 A’s trade. Kotsay was coming off a back injury and a slight off-year, so they bought low on a talent whom they believed had grown undervalued. He was under contract for three more seasons at a not insignificant annual amount, but Hernandez and Long were set to combine for more over the first two of those seasons, so Oakland freed up some payroll in the short-term.

A reasonable interpretation would be Hernandez for Kotsay, with Long as a salary dump to make the dollars match. And it worked out for everybody! Kotsay was a hit with the A’s, Hernandez played well for the Padres in his two years there, and Long bounced back to put in a solid season as a part-timer in San Diego.

***

“Mark Kotsay is someone we’ve always admired from afar, going back to his college days,” general manager Billy Beane said at the time of the trade (via ESPN). “We believe he’s one of the best center fielders in the game, and we like him as an offensive player.”

Indeed, Oakland got everything they hoped for from Kotsay in 2004. He put up one of his best seasons at the plate, dazzled in the field, and earned a few downballot MVP votes for the only time in his career.

  • Kotsay, 2004: .314/.370/.459, 116 wRC+, 15 HR, 78 RBI, 8.2% BB, 10.4% Ks

That performance added up to 4 WAR on both scales, and his defense in particular earned raves. Here’s a quote from Beane in late-August 2004, via Art Spander of the East Bay Times:

“If you were creating a center fielder,” the GM said, “well, Mike Cameron is great. Torii Hunter is just spectacular. But (Kotsay) really plays. He’s like an engineer the way he knows his angles. Right out of a handbook. ... No wasted motion.”

In that same story, radio broadcaster Ken Korach called Kotsay “possibly the team MVP,” and legendary announcer Bill King praised him as “maybe the best center fielder the A’s have that I can remember.”

Unfortunately the A’s missed the postseason that year, by one game. Kotsay had never been to October before, and he’d have to wait a big longer.

***

His numbers tailed off slightly in 2005, but he was still productive to the tune of around 2 WAR. Oakland missed the playoffs again, this time by seven games.

  • Kotsay, 2005: .280/.325/.421, 99 wRC+, 15 HR, 75 RBI, 6.4% BB, 8.1% Ks

They finally made it in 2006. Kotsay struggled during the first half of the season, and his balky back continued to pose a problem, but he heated up in the second half and helped the A’s win the AL West division. His overall replacement-level numbers belie the impact he made down the stretch.

  • Kotsay, 2006: .275/.332/.386, 89 wRC+, 7 HR, 57 RBI, 7.9% BB, 9.9% Ks
  • 2006, 2nd half: .326/.385/.436, 1 HR, 1 triple, 15 doubles

It was his 10th year in the majors, and Kotsay was finally going to the postseason. Once there he didn’t disappoint, posting an all-time franchise highlight in the ALDS against the Minnesota Twins.

The A’s won Game 1, and in Game 2 they entered the 7th inning in a 2-2 tie. With two outs and a runner on first base, and pitcher Dennys Reyes on the mound, Kotsay swung at a 3-1 pitch and drilled it into center. Outfielder Torii Hunter dove for the sinking liner, but it landed short and skipped by him, all the way to the wall.

By the time the Twins recovered the ball, runner Jason Kendall was already crossing home plate, and Kotsay was approaching third base. He got the wave home from 3B coach Ron Washington, and slid safely across the plate ahead of the relay throw. Inside-the-park homer!

That play broke the tie and gave Oakland a lead, which they held for the rest of the game. They won the next one to complete the sweep, moving on to the ALCS. They were soon eliminated by the Detroit Tigers, but it’s still the furthest they’ve made it in the playoff bracket since the 1992 ALCS and the 1990 World Series.

***

Kotsay stuck around for one more year with the A’s in 2007, but his back cost him most of the season. He played only 56 games, with wretched numbers and negative WAR.

  • Kotsay, 2007: .214/.279/.296, 50 wRC+, 1 HR, 20 RBI, 8.4% BB, 8.8% Ks

Oakland had squeezed their window of contention as far as it would go, and they finished under .500 for the first time since 1998. The rebuild began, with stars Dan Haren and Nick Swisher traded away during the winter, as well as fan favorite Marco Scutaro. Kotsay’s turn came in January of ‘08, and he was shipped to the Atlanta Braves.

Even on the way out the door, Kotsay still provided some value. The A’s acquired reliever prospect Joey Devine from the Braves in the deal, and the next year Devine went on to set the A’s franchise single-season record in ERA, which still stands today (minimum of 40 innings).

  • Devine, 2008: 0.59 ERA, 45⅔ ip, 49 Ks, 15 BB, 0 HR, 1.97 FIP

The Top 5 list:

  1. Joey Devine, 0.59 ERA, 2008 (in 45⅔ innings)
  2. Dennis Eckersley, 0.61 ERA, 1990 (in 73⅓ innings)
  3. Blake Treinen, 0.78, 2018 (in 80⅓ innings)
  4. Brad Ziegler, 1.06, 2008 (in 59⅔ innings)
  5. Jack Coombs, 1.30, 1910 (in 353 innings, yikes)

Unfortunately injuries intervened after that, and Devine only pitched one more year in the majors, in 2011. Nevertheless, he’ll be in the club’s record books for a long time.

***

Kotsay went on to play another six seasons in the bigs, including time with the Braves, Red Sox, White Sox, and Brewers, and he wrapped up with a couple years back in San Diego. By the end he’d played 17 summers in the majors, appearing in over 1,900 games.

  • Kotsay, career: .276/.332/.404, 95 wRC+, 127 HR, 1,784 hits, 20ish WAR

His time with the A’s was among his best work. He never made an All-Star team in his career, but he got his only MVP attention wearing green-and-gold.

  • Kotsay, OAK career: .282/.336/.410, 97 wRC+

He played his final game in 2013, and by 2015 he was coaching in the majors, as the Padres hitting coach. In 2016 he moved to Oakland’s staff, shifting between bench coach, quality control coach, and 3B coach, and now he’ll get his first chance as a manager.

Last week when Kotsay’s hiring was announced, broadcaster Josh Suchon shared this anecdote on Twitter:

“When the A’s traded for Kotsay [as a player in 2004], somebody (probably Susan Slusser) asked what fans should expect from him. I’ll never forget his answer. Something like, ‘I may not impress you Day 1, or Week 1, but I’ll grow on you over the season. I just want to win.’”

He certainly ended up impressing A’s fans as a player here, as a tough competitor who left it all on the field and made his team better. Now he’ll get the chance to do so again in his new role as the skipper.