ST. LOUIS -- It doesn't take very long to see the conundrum the St. Louis Cardinals face with Pete Kozma.
Ever since it happened, Kozma's miraculous catch against the Pirates in Game 5 of the NLDS, ranging over to the first-base side of second base to grab the sinking humpback liner from Neil Walker's bat, has been appropriately replayed.
That play by Kozma wasn't much of an outlier. The same inning as the great dive, Kozma ranged deep into the hole at short on a bouncing ball from Justin Morneau, needing to come further because he was shading the lefty Morneau to pull, then throwing across his body to record the out.
He's made difficult plays look routine in the NLCS as well, whether it's ranging into the hole to get the lead runner in the second inning of Game 1 on a sharply-hit A.J. Ellis ground ball, or a diving stop of a Juan Uribe liner in the eleventh inning. The next batter, A.J. Ellis, singled, but that merely produced a man on first, two out situation. A lesser shortstop doesn't get to Uribe's ball, potentially giving the Dodgers first and third, one out.
Picture how the NLCS looks if the Dodgers go on to win Game 1. Awfully different, isn't it?
Kozma's been doing this all year, which is pretty impressive for a guy who wasn't the Cardinals' Plan A at shortstop (that would be Rafael Furcal) or even Plan B (that would be Ronny Cedeño). Furcal got hurt, though, and Cedeno was released before the end of spring training. So Kozma it's been.
Then again, the reason why Kozma, the team's first-round pick back in 2007, hasn't been in the plans at the position is obvious from watching him in a single at-bat. He's 0-for-7 against the Dodgers, after posting an awful .217/.275/.273 line this season, good for an OPS+ of 54. And he looks it, often waving meekly at pitches, appearing to have little chance against most pitchers.
"I've said the same thing to Pete, there's much more in the tank offensively than what Pete's shown so far," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said when I asked about this tradeoff prior to Game 2 Saturday afternoon. "He's still learning, still a young player, with huge potential."
But this isn't something new, with a minor league record suggesting he simply needs to adjust to major league pitching. His OPS in 2012, at Triple-A Memphis, was .647. And even that was his second time through the league -- in 2011, he posted an OPS of .569. He isn't particularly young for a prospect, either, at 25 years old. This is probably who Pete Kozma is.
It's something Kozma seems comfortable with, provided the Cardinals are winning.
"I'm not really worried about it, as long as I'm out there, and I can help us win," Kozma told me when we talked in front of his locker after Saturday's 1-0 victory.
But the question won't be put to Kozma - rather it will be asked to the Cardinals this winter. It's complicated by the team winning 97 games and advancing, at the very least, to the NLCS: Can Pete Kozma be their shortstop moving forward? Or is Pete Kozma a problem in need of fixing?
That the Cardinals have advanced this far with so little offense from their shortstop is unprecedented in recent history. Since 1980, only 27 other shortstops have posted a lower OPS+ in at least 400 plate appearances. All but two of them played for non-playoff teams. The two exceptions: Rafael Santana and his OPS+ of 52 for the 1986 Mets, and Larry Bowa, with his OPS+ of 49 for the 1984 Cubs.
Incidentally, neither team returned to the playoffs the following season. The Cubs jettisoned Bowa by August 1985, while the Mets dumped Santana on the Yankees after the 1987 season. Neither of them played much after those playoff seasons, Bowa retiring after the 1985 season, Santana getting seven games, total, after 1988.
And there's been no one like either of them as a regular shortstop in the playoffs since. Until now.
Ask those vaunted young pitchers getting all the attention right now, though, and they'll tell you how much they love playing in front of Pete Kozma.
Take Michael Wacha, for instance. He's been dominant of late. And against lefties, he virtually always pitches them away, forcing them to hit the ball toward Kozma. For Wacha, it simplifies matters every time he heads to the mound.
"It's a great defense, and I really enjoy having them behind me, making plays," Wacha said Friday. "Just try not to walk people and give up free baserunners."
Nor is this a Wacha-only phenomenon, with relievers like Trevor Rosenthal seamlessly transitioning to the major leagues. A shortstop who simplifies that transition by making great plays can only help.
"I think Pete's a great shortstop," Cardinals reliever Trevor Rosenthal said prior to Game 2. "And that kind of goes hand-in-hand with the kind of team we have, the confidence we have, those guys are gonna pick us up, they have our back, whether it's on offense, or defensively... having that confidence that you can go out there, you don't need to try and strike everybody out, you can attack the hitters."
And for all the attention Carlos Beltran is getting at the moment, that's the identity of the Cardinals moving forward: they'll likely rise and fall on the success of their enormous number of young pitchers. Having Kozma there will serve as a security blanket for those pitchers. His Ultimate Zone Rating ranked fourth among all shortstops this year, trailing only Andrelton Simmons, Alcides Escobar and Yunel Escobar.
Matheny thinks Kozma can get better defensively, too.
"The hand-eye coordination, the athleticism -- defensively, I've said it a number of times, I think he can play as good a defensive shortstop as just about anybody," Matheny said. "And we've seen him do that, we've seen him improve on some of the things he needed to improve on. And there's still room there, too."
That the math could even work for Kozma at all has as much to do with the current league environment as it does with whether Kozma finds a way to improve his offense, or, I suppose, start playing defense at Andrelton Simmons levels. Teams are still coming to grips with what is a dramatically lower run environment than just a few years ago, with Saturday's twin 1-0 playoff games just another data point. As a whole, 2013 National League shortstops hit .254/.308/.373, good for a .681 OPS. That's well above Kozma, but it pales in comparison to even 2010's .713 by all NL shortstops, let alone 2008's .738 from NL shortstops. So Kozma has to get better to come to the league offensively, but offensively, the league has come, somewhat, to Kozma.
Even so, if he doesn't improve offensively, that the Cardinals will be bringing back the shortstop who ranked 44th in Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball-Reference.com. By that stat, players like Wilfredo Tovar, Zach Walters and Ehire Adrianza all posted more value this season than Kozma, and none of the three played in as many as ten games.
None of them are still playing in the NLCS, either.
"The fewer mistakes you make, the less chance the other team has," Kozma said.
That's true both at the plate and in the field, though.
As Matheny put it, concluding his take on Kozma after a full season with him at shortstop: "He's an exciting player to watch, defensively, no question. And offensively, he's still fighting his way through."