Cozart At The Bat

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Three years ago, here at Nuxhall Way, I spilled a lot of words in defense of Zack Cozart. The thrust of my argument was thus: sure, Cozart was among the worst-hitting shortstops in baseball, but his glove was so brilliant that it made him at least league-average for the position. Essentially, I was conceding that Cozart couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat, while attempting to convince you, dear reader, that he still held real value for the Reds.

I ended that brilliant piece of sports analysis with this gem:

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?

So, I was correct: Cozart wasn’t an All-Star in 2014. He’s never made an All-Star Game, in fact. But soon after I wrote that, Cozart went about proving me wrong. And it’s really starting to appear that Cozart is way more than just a pretty glove.

The glove is still gorgeous, of course. Though Cozart has—astoundingly—never won a Gold Glove in his career, either, he still ranks as the top defender among all National League shortstops, even at age 31. (San Francisco’s Brandon Crawford is the only other contender for that crown.)

But we always knew that Cozart could pick it with the best of them. What none of us suspected back in 2014 was that Cozart was on the verge of actually being able to hit.

Fast forward to 2017. Right now, Cozart leads all shortstops across both leagues in:

  • Batting average (.350)
  • On-base percentage (.426)
  • Slugging percentage (.580)
  • wOBA (.423)
  • wRC+ (160)
  • OPS+ (160)
  • fWAR (2.3)
  • bWAR (2.7)
  • Triples (4)

Are you getting the picture? For the first two months of the 2017 season, Zack Cozart has been the best shortstop in baseball, and it isn’t really close. But it didn’t happen overnight.

Cozart came into the 2015 season with a career slash line of .243/.281/.365. He was entering his age-29 season, so it’s hardly surprising that so-called baseball writers (ahem) had named him an all-glove, no-hit shortstop. His numbers in 2014 were the worst of his career to that point: .221/.268/.300 in 147 games, and there seemed no reason to expect any improvement.

But a funny thing happened: Cozart started to rake. A month-and-a-half into the 2015 season, he was hitting .324/.369/.549, baffling everyone. He slumped a little after that, but when his season ended with that horrific knee injury in mid-June, Cozart was hitting .258/.310/.459 with a 108 OPS+. Those numbers were far and away the best of his career.

Last year, Cozart started the season red-hot again, hitting .328/.333/.520 by mid-May. Again, he cooled a bit, and injuries limited Cozart to 121 games, but he finished the season with a slash line of .252/.308/.425. This was an entirely different Cozart than the one we saw before 2015. He was now a roughly league-average hitter with a great glove. That’s an above-average player, right?

In 2017, Cozart is off to yet another fast start, but this one is in a different stratosphere. Sure, we can expect him to revert to the mean (that .403 BABIP doesn’t seem sustainable, eh?), but there is no question in my mind that Cozart has left that “all-glove, no-hit” label behind for good. These improvements with the bat are real (and they’re spectacular). And here’s why.

Cozart’s walk rate has improved each of the last three years: 4.6% in 2014, 6.5% in 2015, 7.3% in 2016. It’s exploded this season to 12.6%. It’s pretty easy to explain, too: Cozart stopped swinging at so many pitches outside the zone. In 2014, Cozart offered at 31.1% of pitches outside the strike zone. That number is down to 25.5% in 2017. (For comparison’s sake, Joey Votto is at 22.7% for his entire career, and 17% in 2017, which is nearly impossible to fathom.) Cozart is also actually swinging at fewer pitches within the strike zone too, which leads me to believe he’s making a concerted effort to convert his approach to the Votto/Ted Williams school: until there are two strikes, only swing at pitches that you think you can drive.

The result of that better plate discipline is that Cozart is squaring up the ball more often. For the third straight season, he’s hitting more line drives than ever (2014 LD%: 17.7; 2017 LD%: 21.7) and he’s making harder contact—in 2014, 25.4% of Cozart’s contact resulted in “hard-hit” balls; that number was 31.2% last year and 30.2% so far this season. Not surprisingly, that has resulted in more power. Cozart’s ISO (“a measure of a hitter’s raw power [that] tells you how often a player hits for extra bases”) in 2014 was .079; over the last three seasons, his ISO has been .201, .172, and .229.

Is Cozart suddenly a Honus Wagner-type elite-hitting shortstop? I’m not quite ready to make that argument. But in 216 games (900-plus plate appearances) since that miserable 2014 season, Cozart has hit .272/.332/.463. Over his last 163 games (roughly a full-season equivalent), Cozart has hit .277/.339/.464 with 21 HR and 41 doubles. Plus, he still plays elite defense.

This is who Cozart is now. He’s one of the best shortstops in baseball. It’s an amazing turnaround.

True, he’s had trouble staying healthy. And yes, he’s a soon-to-be 32-year-old shortstop. Let’s save for another day the discussion of what the future holds for Zack Cozart (i.e., will the Reds trade him soon?). Right now, let’s just enjoy one of the most unlikeliest transformations we’ve ever seen, from the worst-hitting shortstop in the league to (one of) the best. Ok?

Here’s hoping we finally get that All-Star selection all those dumb baseball writers said would never happen.

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN.com, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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