When Zack Cozart took a tumble over first base last June and suffered that horrific knee injury, you had to feel sorry for the guy. It was his fourth full season with the Reds, and over the previous three seasons, he had declined markedly with the bat. His glove has always been brilliant, but when he hit .221/.268/.300 (a less-than-ideal OPS+ of 60) as a 28-year-old in 2014, even Cozart’s most strident defenders (his mom, I guess?) had to admit that the future wasn’t particularly bright.
But last year, Cozart flipped the script. By the middle of May, he was hitting .319/.363/.558 and people were starting to talk about Cozart as a legitimate contender for a spot on the National League All-Star roster. He declined somewhat thereafter, but at the time of the injury, Cozart was an above-average hitter who played extraordinary defense.*
*And I’ve been in love with that defense for a long time.
My biggest concern about the injury was that Cozart would lose a step on defense when he returned. I’m fairly satisfied at this point that my fears were unfounded. Cozart is passing the eye test, as he seems to be making every routine play and plenty of eye-popping ones as well.
Across the board, the defensive metrics (for what they’re worth this early in the season) also seem to indicate that Cozart is playing the shortstop position as well as he ever has, even at age 30. His UZR/150 (a measure of the number of runs above or below average a fielder is, per 150 defensive games) is third in the majors, behind only noted defensive superstars Brandon Crawford and Andrelton Simmons.
But something else strange has happened since Cozart returned: he kept hitting, picking right up where he left off. Actually, he’s hitting better than he ever has before. Right now, Cozart is slashing .344/.347/.548 with 10 doubles and 3 home runs, and and OPS+ of 133. That’s getting it done, to say the least, and it prompted fellow Nuxhall Way contributor Jason Linden to muse:
So, I’m just wondering, how long before we start really believing in Cozar? His last 300 PAs, he’s got 2.4 WAR.
— Jason Linden (@JasonLinden) May 8, 2016
You can’t blame Jason for some optimism here. Since the beginning of last season, Cozart is hittting .286/.322/.488 in 76 games (312 plate appearances) for it’s an OPS+ of 116. When you combine that with his defensive prowess, you’re looking at an All-Star caliber shortstop. Full stop, no questions asked.*
*Jason quoted Cozart’s fWAR; if you look at Baseball-Reference.com’s calculation, they have Cozart at a 3.4 WAR over the last 300+ plate appearances.
A couple of caveats apply. First, we’re still discussing small samples, even over parts of two seasons. It’s unlikely that Cozart has suddenly become a .344 hitter. Also, Cozart has taken just two walks so far this season, and a lack of plate discipline is usually a reliable indicator of someone who won’t be able to sustain his production when he begins to slump.
But heck, when you’re squaring up the ball as well as Cozart is, why not swing, right?
Has Cozart improved that much? Well, his BABIP right now is .358, which is almost assuredly unsustainable in the long term (his career mark is .278). And when I look at the rest of the advanced metrics, nothing stands out that makes me believe he suddenly learned how to be an elite hitter at the age of 30.
More likely, he’s just in the middle of a wildly hot streak, and the numbers will begin regressing back toward the mean as we progress through the season. But even if Cozart ends up with the numbers that the ZiPS projection system estimates—.261/.297/.404—that’s production I don’t mind from an elite defensive shortstop. He won’t be a leadoff hitter anymore with that slash line (well, on most teams he wouldn’t be a leadoff hitter, but that’s another matter), but he’ll be a positive contributor to the team.
My hope is that Cozart can somehow keep it up for another six weeks and find himself on the first-base line at the 2016 All-Star Game in San Diego this July as one of the (or the only?) Reds representatives at the Midsummer Classic. That would be an appropriate reward for a guy who has been fun to watch in his Reds career.
A better question, though, is whether Cozart will remain a Red after this year’s trade deadline. If he continues playing well, there just might be a market for him among contending teams. If the Reds are smart, they’ll probably try to sell high. I like the guy, but it would make all kinds of sense to trade Cozart if they can find a buyer. He’ll be 31 in August, and is unlikely to be a member of the next good Reds team.
But if there’s no market, or if the Reds just can’t work out a deal, I won’t complain about having Cozart around for the next couple of years. He is the anchor of the infield, and the best defensive shortstop the Reds have had since Barry Larkin. He’s fun to watch. And maybe, just maybe, he has improved enough at the plate to make him worth keeping around.
Or maybe he’ll just keep mashing a .300-plus average. Is this Zack Cozart for real? I don’t know the answer to that question. But he has been awfully good of late, and since there’s so little else to root for right now, we can hope.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.