An almost 32-year-old with two Z’s in his full name has accumulated the second most fWAR in the majors this season, already eclipsing his previous career high by 0.6 wins in 72 fewer games. Cozart was well know early in his career for being awful offensively, albeit with enough defensive prowess to make him almost an average big leaguer.
In his first three full seasons he averaged less than a .240 batting average over the aggregate, with a wRC+ topping out at 83 and a low of 56. Although he averaged about 10 homers a year (not the worst number from a shortstop) his overall production was nowhere near fantasy talk unless you found yourself in a 20-team NL-only league.
Yet here we are in 2017, and Cozart is one of the most valuable players in the league, and somehow a dangerous hitter. His wRC+ is 173 which is fifth in the league, as he has not just been a defensive wizard to accumulate value this year. So, the question that needs to be answered is, is this legit?
Any hot streak has a kernal of skill, and once a player displays a skill he owns it (although, as time passes without showing it again, the likelihood of showing it decreases), but there is so much variance in baseball still this early in the season. He has about a third of a season’s worth of at bats, plenty of time for plate discipline numbers to stabilize, and enough for most peripheral numbers to be used as a proxy for stats that are still not stable yet (rate stats such as average and slugging).
Last year and in 2015 we saw Cozart start striking out more, basically ruining the one positive thing from his offensive standpoint. But with those strikeouts came a pretty big jump in his isolated slugging. After sitting around low to mid 100s it jumped to .172 and .201. A pretty clear conclusion to draw here is he started swinging harder, worrying less about making weak contact and protecting the zone in favor of making solid contact. It’s an approach that has precedent, and often success, although with the cost of discipline numbers.
While his walk rates have been similar his entire career, this season he is drawing way more free passes than usual. His 13.8% is almost double last year’s and career totals. And he has accomplished this by basically not offering at anything out of the zone. His chase rate (o-swing%) is just 24.0%, top-30 in the league, and well below the league rate of 29.3%. But when you look in the zone it’s the same thing. He’s swinging at even less pitches there, just 61.0% after last year’s 66.4%. League average zone swing rate is 66.5%, the 22nd lowest mark in the league.
There’s not much correlation to draw necessarily from swing rates and offensive success, but it’s nice to see Cozart being more careful with what pitches he swings at. It also adds further credence to the idea of him simply swinging harder, and it’s nice to see he’s not just chasing at it. He is waiting for his pitch, swinging as hard as he can, and crushing it at an elite rate.
To dig a little deeper into this, look at where his power has been coming from:
Now look at where he has been swinging:
As Cozart is a righty and these heatmaps are from the catcher’s perspective, he’s both swinging and producing on inside pitches almost exclusively. Of course there’s a little chicken or the egg implication here, because if he only swings in one part he’s going to only have success in that one part. But I will defer my concerns to the faith and knowledge of Cozart himself and the Reds coaching staff, who I assume know his strengths much better than I.
So it looks like there is some real change in his approach here, but some of his success is luck as well. Cozart has a .393 BABIP which is just not sustainable in any shape. He has hit a career .282 on balls in play, and it has actually been worse the past couple years as he has adopted the new approach. With virtually no change in quality of contact or spray angles, that average is going to drop from its pretty .348 perch.
No doubt there is some luck and sample bias to Zack Cozart’s hot start. But there’s some real deal stuff showing itself here if we look hard enough. He has an approach that has been refined over the past few years, plus some underlying numbers that hinted at better things even if the overall success wasn’t quite there. Cozart is going to come down some, but he looks legit.
Anyone who owns him should keep him, and if you don’t his history should cost you pennies on the dollar. In the latter scenario, buy all shares because he’s having a late career breakout. If you need further incentive to buy, Greg Jewett was also pimping out Cozart’s services the other day and has a few more points to make. The bottom line is the same – buy now.
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