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Law of Average
Zack Cozart is probably a better baseball player than you think.
Then again, who am I to assume what you think? You might think Cozart is the best shortstop in baseball (in which case, you are probably Zack Cozart’s mother, and I’m sure you have plenty of reasons for that opinion; he does seem like such a nice boy).
You might also think that Dusty Baker was correct last year to bat Cozart in the second spot in the lineup more frequently than any other spot in the order. If that’s what you believe, your name is probably Johnny B. Baker. I wish you nothing but the best in your retirement, and I offer my sincere thanks for your hand in helping bring the Cincinnati Reds back to relevance again over the last few seasons.
Most fans, however, look at Cozart’s batting line—.230/.275/.307 with two home runs in 293 plate appearances—and are forced to wince. Ugly, right? Every time the Reds lose and Cozart doesn’t get a hit, Twitter’s tubes get jammed (I really don’t understand how this internet thing works) with Reds fans exclaiming that Cincinnati will never win until they get rid of Cozart (and/or Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, or Ryan Ludwick, depending on the day of the week.)
I’m not going to try to convince you that Cozart has been a good hitter this season. You, dear reader, are so sophisticated that I wouldn’t dare try to get that one past you. I will, however, say that Cozart has been roughly the same player he has been over the last couple of years: a league-average shortstop. And that’s not a bad thing.
Let’s look at the hitting first. The numbers are bad; I can’t sugarcoat that. Cozart’s wOBA of .258 ranks 12th (of 13) among qualified National League shortstops. Same with his wRC+: 58, which is 12th-best in the NL. There’s almost no way to look at any of the relevant offensive categories and come to any conclusion other than that Cozart is one of the worst hitters in the league. On the other hand, at least he’s better than San Diego’s Everth Cabrera!
Okay, I lied; I am going to try to sugarcoat Cozart’s hitting. Zack got off to a terrible start this season. He began the year on a 0-for-22 skid. On April 19—just 17 games into the campaign—he was hitting .111/.143/.148. Since that time, however, Cozart is hitting .259/.306/.345. That slash line isn’t too far away from his career numbers. In fact, the on-base percentage is actually higher than his career average and would place him in the top half of NL shortstops. The biggest problem is that Cozart’s power has disappeared. Over the last two seasons, Cozart has hit 27 home runs, but only has 2 mid-way through 2014.
Cozart’s defense, however, has been nothing short of spectacular. You probably already realize this if you watch the Reds often, as Cozart routinely makes exceptional plays with his glove. The defensive metrics agree with your eyes. Zack is second in the NL in defensive runs saved and third in UZR. By any defensive measure, Cozart ranks with Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons and St. Louis’ Jhonny Peralta, with every other NL shortstop far behind.
When you combine an elite glove with hitting stats that might not be as far below average as you think, you get a player that can provide real value to a team. As Joel Luckhaupt noted, Cozart is "on pace" for the highest WAR by a Reds player with an OPS+ less than 70 since Woody Williams in 1944. Maybe that’s damning with faint praise, but at the very least, it shows that Cozart has been able to produce value for the Reds despite the weak bat.
Perhaps the biggest reason that it has been easier to stomach Cozart’s less-than-impressive offensive performance is that we no longer have to suffer through watching him hit second in the lineup. Give Bryan Price credit for dropping Cozart to the eight hole, where he is getting fewer at-bats than he would if he were higher in the order and, as a result, giving me fewer things about which to complain.
In the final analysis, Cozart is pretty much a league-average shortstop. To some, that sounds like criticism, but it is not: there is real value in an average MLB player. The problem, of course, as Jason Linden correctly opined over at Redleg Nation, is that Cozart can likely be expected to be an average shortstop only for two or three more years, at best. The Reds can be a competitive team with Cozart manning that position, but very soon, as he declines with the glove, the organization will have some difficult decisions to make.
Until then, however, don’t let Cozart’s ugly hitting statistics cause you to underrate him. He isn’t an All-Star and never will be, but he is okay. Okay?