We have the right—if not reasoning—to be skeptical of Zack Cozart. But it’s waning by the second. For the past few seasons, the Reds shortstop was the perpetual low-hanging fruit when it came to criticizing the club’s offense, the typical “time-to-get-a-beer” spot in the lineup. His defense was spectacular, more than enough to keep him as an everyday player, but his stats at the plate were below average (at best) for his first two full seasons—and that was before 2014, when his numbers sunk like a fat guy wearing cinder-block cargo pants in a river. Cozart slashed .221/.268./.300 in 147 games, finishing last among qualified hitters in OPS in all of baseball last season. He set career lows in homers (4), runs, and extra base hits (though also in strikeouts, oddly enough), with a wOBA of .254 (bad) and a wRC+ of 56 (barf). As usual, his defense was still spectacular, serving as the only legitimate explanation—one I agreed with, for what it’s worth—for keeping him at shortstop night after night. But in doing so, Bryan Price and the Reds were essentially penciling in two automatic outs every night in the 8th and 9th holes in the batting order. It was getting impossible for Cozart’s incredible glove to continue warding off the poison pill he was swinging at the plate…which makes what he’s doing this year all the more surprising.
It was fair to assume heading into this season that Cozart would improve upon his 2014 numbers, though the odds heavily favored him simply returning to his underwhelming .250/.285/.390 range of seasons past. Instead, the Reds shortstop has come out hot like Kanye, on pace to put up career numbers across the board. He’s currently slashing .287/.343/.496 with 6 homers (already surpassing last year’s total), earning him a new slot at the top of the lineup—though Billy Hamilton aided in that move as well. Cozart’s wOBA and wRC+ are a ridiculous .362 and 127, respectively. His isolated power (ISO) is an insane .209. His OBP of .839 is more than 150 points higher than his current career-high of .687 from 2012, and not even in the same time zone as last year’s putrid .568. His production, in a word, is unprecedented, as Adam McFadden at FanGraphs pointed out as well last week.
So what the hell is going on? Logic would suggest that at some point, he’ll cool off and regress back toward those 2012-13 numbers. But what’s just as shocking as his success thus far is that, when you dig a little deeper, very little jumps out as all that surprising. The biggest anomaly in his batted ball stats is his 13.6% HR/FB percentage—which is obviously boosting those ISO and SLG numbers, and is noticeably above his previous season-high of 8.8%—but beyond that, most things are sticking to the script. His GB/LD/FB percentages are in line with his career averages, with only a slight uptick in fly balls. His plate discipline is similarly true to form, posting O-Swing & Z-Swing percentages that are basically identical to his normal rates, and a contact percentage (87.8) only a hair above 2014 (86.7). His K and BB rates are better, though nothing eyebrow-raising, and he hasn’t been all that lucky; that .292 BABIP is noticeably better than last year (.255), but nothing to suggest he’s getting the Angels in the Outfield treatment. He’s been consistent game to game, as well. He did get hot during a seven-game hit-streak in mid-April (13/26), but even the wrist and fingernail injuries he suffered in early May (forcing him to miss four games) and a few rough days of late (2 hits in his last 20 at-bats) haven’t derailed him; he’s still slashing .298/.382/.489 this month.
Cozart himself hasn’t offered much insight into his early-season turnaround, either. Reports out of spring training noted some vague “tweaks” he made to his swing in the offseason, in addition to the sage/simplistic advice of Hall of Famer Barry Larkin to “crush the inside part of the ball.” (Cozart’s analysis? “I don’t even know what my hands are doing.”) Beyond that, it’s been largely shoulder shrugs and the tried-and-true playerisms, like being “more aggressive” and “confident.” Which is fine—we don’t need to know the secrets if we’re seeing the results—it just makes the explanation a bit harder to pinpoint.
Again, the safe bet would be on Cozart slowing down a bit, even gradually, as the year progresses. It’s early, he’s only had 144 plate appearances, he bought a good batch of Big League Chew, etc. But what’s reassuring is that—aside from his homerun rate, which will likely tail off—nothing in his nitty-gritty numbers screams a nosedive is forthcoming. And that’s fine by me. Zack Cozart may very well make believers of us all.