KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Catcher George Kottaras laughs at the suggestion he might be a bit of a hero to the sabermetrics crowd.
“I don’t know that I’m anyone’s hero, but I’ll take it,” Kottaras says, smiling in front of his Royals’ locker.
But in all seriousness, Kottaras is grateful that his work is recognized and appreciated, namely his ability to draw walks. That talent, as every Royals fan knows, is not exactly rampant in the Kansas City organization.
“I’ve always been pretty patient,” he says. “Sometimes I get a little overaggressive. But most of the time I try to stay in the mind-set to just take what you can get. I understand what I can and can’t do and try to stick within that.”
Despite playing in only 28 games this year, Kottaras is sixth on the team in walks with 15 in just 71 plate appearances. That’s more walks than Alcides Escobar, who has just 14 in 389 plate appearances, or Salvador Perez, who has just 12 in 307 plate appearances, or even David Lough, who has just four in 181 plate appearances.
Kottaras’ patience explains why his on-base percentage is a more-than-healthy .352, third best on the team behind Billy Butler (.373) and Alex Gordon (.355).
And that high on-base percentage should remind everyone not only of Kottaras’ value but the somewhat insignificance of his .179 average as well. He also has contributed four homers and 11 RBIs in his reserve role.
Kottaras’ team-first approach at the plate is something he says he learned while in the Boston organization.
“I learned it there with the Red Sox,” he says. “I came up with San Diego but when I got traded to Boston I really noticed a different approach within the organization as far as just doing what you can at the plate. It was ‘If you walk, you walk. If you hit a home run, great.’
“But it was preached to just do what you’re capable of doing in that particular at bat. Don’t swing at something and try to force it. If it’s there, take it. If it’s not, let the next guy have his shot.
“We had sayings in Boston like ‘Don’t be afraid to pass it off to the next guy.’ There was another term we had in Boston which was ‘Trust the guy behind you.’ Sometimes you’re going to pick up the guy in front of you, but make sure you realize the guy behind you can help, too.”
Coincidentally, George Brett, who took over as hitting coach of the Royals in late May, has been using similar terminology.
“Just keep the line moving,” Brett says. “Each guy just keeps it all moving. Don’t be that guy that tries to win it all yourself. You have guys behind you.”
Still, Kottaras, 30, wasn’t able to connect that philosophy to his game right away. In his one full season in Boston and his next two in Milwaukee, his on-base percentages were a modest .308, .305 and .311.
“It took me a couple of years to totally understand that because when you’re in the minors or when you just get up to the big leagues,” he says, “you’re always searching and finding what you do right.”
But it all clicked last season in Milwaukee when he posted a .409 on-base percentage in 58 games before being traded to Oakland.
“The whole ‘Trust the guy behind you’ really made sense finally,” he says. “It’s about patience and doing the little things. You don’t always get a pitch to bring in the guy from third with less than two outs. So if it’s not there, let it go. Take the walk and let the next guy have a shot at it.”
Kottaras still thinks about that Red Sox philosophy of just getting on base, at whatever cost.
“This game is all about getting on base,” he says. “That’s how you win games.”
But Kottaras admits it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially for part-time players.
“It is hard to do when you’re not playing every day,” he says. “The toughest thing is when you don’t play and don’t get many reps, your instinct is to go up there and do too much. But I try to keep it simple and do what is best for that at bat, whether it’s to move the runner over or take a walk and get on, or get a hit or a homer.
“It’s just recognizing what you can do but also what you can do to help the team.”
And if that’s walking four times a game without getting an official at bat, that’s fine, he says.
“If I walk four times in a game, I’d be happy,” he says. “I’ve done my job. Or if I go one for four but two of the outs helped move a runner over from second to third, I’ve done my job. Those are little things that are really important that don’t show up in a box score, like moving runners.
“I can go (zero for two) but if I move the runner over from second to third each time and the next guy hits a sac fly, I’m happy. Done my job. Do the little things whether it’s taking a walk, moving the runner, whatever. Just make each at bat count.” You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email him at email@example.com