Kozma battling with long slump in Double-A
2007 first-round pick regaining confidence with swing, defense
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Cardinals shortstop prospect Pete Kozma didn't exactly have the flying start he had hoped for when he was promoted to Double-A Springfield on May 1.
After hitting .315 in 18 games with Class A Palm Beach, Kozma -- who said he was surprised by the promotion -- hit just .222 with two extra-base hits and nine RBIs with Springfield in the first month with his new team.
"It was definitely tough at first," Kozma said. "I knew it was going to happen and I was going to have to overcome it, but it's easier said than done. A bunch of people were telling me that I would struggle some and I just have to get past it, but it was definitely a struggle."
While Kozma struggled to get much of anything going at the plate, his usually-stellar defense slumped as well. He had nine errors in 18 games at Palm Beach before committing 12 errors in his first 46 games with Springfield. Things were starting to snowball for the former first-round Draft pick.
Kozma rebounded nicely and hit .280 with six doubles, two triples and two home runs in June, but his struggles soon returned. He hit just .162 in July and isn't doing any better in August. The numbers don't add up well for the Oklahoma native, who is hitting just .212 in 93 games since his promotion. He has 17 extra-base hits in 339 at-bats.
"There's no doubt that this has been a big jump for him," said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, in town last week to check up on Kozma and the other prospects on the Springfield roster. "I think he's handled himself very well. I know he's hit into some hard luck, but this is probably a likely place he is going to have to come back to next year. Hopefully at this time next year, he's showing the signs that you may have seen if he had just been stuck in the Florida State League the rest of this year."
Fittingly enough, Kozma's first game with Springfield was at Drillers Stadium in Tulsa, the same stadium where his homer accounted for the only run in Owasso High School's 1-0 state championship win in 2007. Kozma hit .522 with 56 runs, 55 RBIs, 21 doubles, five triples, 11 home runs and 14 stolen bases -- and struck out just once all season -- during his senior year before being the Cardinals highest selection since 2000 when they took him 18th overall in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.
The extra pressure got to Kozma, who struggled to avoid thinking about the high expectations placed on him after being a team's top pick.
"I did at first, right after I got drafted," Kozma said. "But now it's definitely worn off. I just go out there and play like all of these other guys. I try not to worry about that."
While Kozma considers himself just another player on the Springfield roster, manager Pop Warner and hitting coach Derrick May have been spending extra time with the righty to work on his swing. But his problems at the plate seem to have more to do with his pitch selection than the actual mechanics of his swing.
"He does a lot of good things, he reacts to the pitches the right way, he's just young," Warner said. "He swings at some pitches that he can't hit. Whenever he gets the ability to hit pitches he can handle and take the rest of them ... You know there are pitches that just aren't meant to be hit in this game. Some guys think they can do it, but it just comes with experience knowing that, 'You know what? There's nothing I can do with that pitch, there's no reason to swing at it unless there's two strikes and I have the ability to foul it off and get myself another chance to get a good pitch to hit.'"
The offensive struggles for a young player can be expected, but the defensive woes were much more puzzling. Known as an elite defender since Little League, Kozma spent the first few months struggling with routine plays. Fielding errors, throwing errors, mental errors -- not much was going right defensively for the youngster, who was also trying to battle his struggles at the plate.
"Inexperience," said Warner. "He was rushing some balls that he didn't need to and laying back on some balls that he needed to be more aggressive on, but I will give him credit -- his makeup is off the charts and it has kept him afloat. He's battled through it and you haven't been able to tell when he's been doing bad or good. He's been consistent all year with his attitude and he's pretty consistent defensively right now."
Indeed, Kozma's defense has steadily improved since his disappointing start. With Mozeliak in the crowd, the shortstop turned in back-to-back stellar plays -- one to his right and one to his left. A few innings later, he ranged far to his left to snag a grounder and flipped it behind him to second base to start an impressive 6-4-3 double play.
"It's been a roller coaster, all of the ups and downs," Kozma said. "We're out here every single day taking ground balls, so it's tough when you're struggling because we practice it every day. But you just have to overcome it.
"I just need to slow the game down a little bit. I had a little trouble with that last year too, just trying to do too many things. Just slowing things down helps a lot."
And while Kozma has struggled more than he and the Cardinals would have liked to start his professional career, he is quick to point out that as a 21-year-old kid, he has plenty of better days ahead of him.
"Playing a game I love, I mean, I wouldn't want to do anything else," Kozma said. "It's great, hanging with the guys every day. It beats the heck out of a regular job.
"I'm just along for the ride. Whatever happens, happens."
B.J. Rains is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.