When Kevin Kouzmanoff was making his way through the minor leagues, he was generally turning heads with good power and hitting ability. With the bat as his blatant calling card, you just didn't really hear anything about the glove. In his 2006 book, John Sickels noted concern about his durability and age, but added that, "he is a legitimate hitter who could hit .280 in the majors with good pop."
He was already 21 at the beginning of his career but made it Triple-A by the time that he was 24, when that Sickels blurb was written. And frankly, it's easy to see why Kouzmanoff's offensive potential excited people. Kouzmanoff made it to the majors in 2007 and never returned, leaving his career minor league line at a sparkling .332/.395/.556, including OPS marks over 1.000 in both Double-A and Triple-A. With monster power numbers, a reasonable strikeout/walk ratio and a high BABIP, Kouzmanoff looked precisely like the kind of player that could have an extended career as a solid regular.
And in the end, he has been a solid everyday third baseman. Over the past four seasons, he's put up between 2.5 and 2.9 WAR in each season, with his mark improving slightly each year. But what's fascinating isn't his WAR-sistency. Rather, it's the fact that he's compiled a good deal of that value from developing into an elite defensive third baseman as his offensive game has deteriorated.
After the Padres traded Josh Barfield for Kouzmanoff, they made him their regular third baseman in 2007 and he impressed. His .275/.329/.457 line wouldn't seem to be impressive from a distance, but he was actually 10% above the league average after factoring in Petco Park's effects. He would have been more valuable, but his glove graded out as 4 runs below average according to UZR.
But over the next few years, Kouzmanoff went through an incredible transformation that couldn't be described as anything but gradual, and you can see it in almost all of his numbers.
ISO: .182, .173, .164, .149
BABIP: .304, .297, .285, .270
wOBA: .339, .316, .312, .296
Basically, this is a quick and easy explanation of Kouzmanoff's offensive break down. Now, it's worth noting that Kouzmanoff basically moved from the NL's most pitcher-friendly park, San Diego, to the AL's most pitcher-friendly park in Oakland, but all that does is make his career .258/.302/.425 line look somewhat better than it otherwise would. But pretty much any hitter that loses 35 points each in both isolated power and BABIP is going to lose most of his value, and Kouzmanoff was no different.
But where Kouzmanoff was different, though, was on defense. Rather than watch his overall value plummet along with his offensive value, Kouzmanoff has not only made up for his offensive decline with defensive improvement. He's actually made himself better overall. It's almost as if he decided that he wanted to be a different kind of player, but necessarily a better player.
After putting up that -3.8 UZR in 2007, he followed that up with a +2.3 UZR in 2008 and a +7.5 UZR in 2009. After the 2009 season, he finally started to get some attention as a quality glove after leading all MLB third baseman in fielding percentage. Apparently that caught the eye of Billy Beane, who acquired Kouzmanoff to take over at third in Oakland.
And despite putting up a career-worst .247/.283(!!!)/.396 line, Kouzmanoff actually put up the best WAR of his career. How, you ask? Why, with a +16 UZR. This is the same guy that was considered an average-at-best defender just three years before. And now he's putting up better UZR marks than Evan Longoria, Ryan Zimmerman, Scott Rolen and Adrian Beltre.
I don't know what the precedent is for this kind of thing, where we literally watch a player maintain his value by offsetting offensive decline with defensive improvement. But this struck me as a pretty unique situation. I'd love to hear if anyone else has seen something like this.
Oh, and another funny fact? The only guy that put up a better UZR at third base in 2010 was Chase Headley. As in the guy that pushed the Padres to deal Kouzmanoff to Oakland in the first place.