The Best 40 Games of Zack Cozart by Neil Weinberg May 22, 2015 It probably doesn’t shock you to learn that the three best hitting Reds so far this year all play the infield. Based on what you know about the Reds, it’s only slightly shocking to learn that Jay Bruce isn’t in the team’s top three in wRC+, but Todd Frazier and Joey Votto are obviously right up there and Brandon Phillips, while sometimes overrated, isn’t a bad hitter. Except Brandon Phillips isn’t number three on the list. That was a test. It’s actually Zack Cozart and his 127 wRC+ through 144 PA this year. As a learned baseball fan, you’re immediately jumping to the conclusion that Cozart has had a nice little run during the first couple months of the season, but there is simply no way he’s actually this good. It’s a totally defensible position to weigh Cozart’s first 1,799 PA from 2011-2014 more highly than the 144 from 2015. That’s just good science. Entering 2015 you had an opinion about how good Cozart is at hitting and 36 games isn’t going to change that. The Reds shortstop was, and probably still is, a terrific defender with good base running instincts and an ability to put the ball in play. He’s a below average major league regular, or at least he certainly was when 2014 ended. Cozart is also 29 years old, so it’s not as if he’s a young player who will grow into something the way Reds fans might feel about Billy Hamilton. It’s not unreasonable that Cozart might get better at the plate, but it’s also unlikely that he would suddenly become a great hitter. Let’s do some quick comparisons between his first four seasons and this one. Split PA 1B% 2B+3B% HR% BB+HBP% BABIP wRC+ 2011-2014 1799 15.6% 5.2% 1.8% 5.2% .276 74 2015 144 16.0% 5.5% 4.2% 8.3% .292 127 This paints a pretty clear picture about Cozart’s season. He’s hitting more home runs and getting more free passes. The BABIP is up, but he’s not getting a higher rate of singles, doubles, or triples as a total share of his plate appearances. In 144 PA, a small number of home runs or walks can swing these numbers pretty dramatically. You don’t have to be a good hitter to have a good 150 PA. In fact, we would expect some fluctuation around a player’s true talent level. If we say that Cozart’s true talent level is something like .280 wOBA, we would generally expect him to bounce around that level over any given period of time, but there might be some peaks up near his current level. Below is Zack Cozart’s Basic wOBA over the course of his career and a 40-game moving average Basic wOBA. Cozart’s had hot streaks before, but this is a new level. The fact that he’s had a .330-.360 40-game wOBA recently doesn’t mean he’s a new man, but the fact that he’s never quite produced at this level makes it worth investigating. We have two important questions to answer. Is Cozart really going to hit more home runs and is he going to draw more walks? If either of those things are true, we might want to believe in Cozart a little more than assuming our prior expectations are totally accurate. Starting with the home runs, we generally think of harder-hit, pulled, fly balls leading to more home runs. It’s nothing conclusive, but that’s what Cozart has done this year as he’s made more of an effort to attack pitches inside. Split LD% GB% FB% Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard% 2011-2014 18.4 % 45.9 % 35.7 % 45.9 % 32.7 % 21.4 % 18.5 % 57.6 % 23.9 % 2015 18.2 % 41.8 % 40.0 % 50.4 % 26.6 % 23.0 % 17.7 % 53.1 % 29.2 % But at the same time, his HR/FB% went from 6.7% from 2011-2014 to 13.6% this year. A single home run landing in a glove could slash his wOBA by 12 or 13 points at this point, so we’re still very much in high variance territory. If you look at batted ball velocity numbers we have so far, Cozart has the 21st slowest average exit velocity, 84.4 mph, among hitters with at least 30 at bats. He’s not stinging the ball, even if the results are very good. Going by ESPN Home Run Tracker marks, his average home run velocity has been 100.25 mph, but the numbers recorded by StatCast have been a touch lower for the three home runs for which there is data. If you trust the methodology, two of Cozart’s home runs should have gone out in zero parks under normal conditions. We can bend the data to support the notion that Cozart is shifting into a bit more of a home run hitter, but it’s just too soon to tell. He’s pulling the ball in the air a little more often, but that’s just not enough to assert Cozart as derby threat to Yoenis Cespedes. It’s far more likely that he’s fluked into a couple extra home runs and his six dingers should really be more like the three he should have right now according to his past rate. If we turn to the walks, things get a little easier to sort of given that we need far fewer PA to say something about walk rate than we do home run rate. The randomness is a little more muted. His swing rates aren’t different, but he is making more contact and seeing fewer pitches in the zone. Split O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% 2011-2014 68.8% 91.1% 84.3% 52.0% 2015 75.6% 94.2% 88.0% 48.9% The decrease in zone rate lines up with an uptick in walk rate because you can’t walk if the pitches are in the strike zone. The contact rate spike doesn’t necessarily track with an increased walk rate, but hitting pitches you used to swing through is a positive in most cases. He’s been ahead in the count for about 24% of his pitches this year compared to 21% in his career before 2015. Cozart isn’t swinging a lot less often, but when he swings the ball is going in play more. Pair that with the fact that he’s ahead more often and you can infer that he’s getting into better counts and then making better contact when he does. He’s also made comments to that effect, leading us to give a little more credence to the idea that this is a real shift in his approach. The samples are too small to fill you with immense optimism. Cozart’s results have been better this year but they haven’t been backed by an obvious change in his game to the extent that you’re sure he’s a changed man. In all likelihood, Cozart’s gotten a little bit better. True talent changes happen, but true talent changes in which player’s get 50% better are rare. Your prior beliefs about Cozart as a player carry weight, even if the most recent version of him is playing very well. A .280 wOBA hitter can post a .360 wOBA over 150 PA. It’s not common, but it’s plausible. It’s even more plausible that a true talent .300 wOBA hitter posts a .360 wOBA over 150 PA. Or a .310 wOBA hitter. You don’t have to be a .360 wOBA player to post a .360 wOBA. That’s the key. There’s almost certainly positive fortune in Cozart’s numbers this year, and the most likely explanation is that Cozart has gotten a little better and been the beneficiary of some good luck. It might not be an invigorating answer for Reds fans hoping to turn him into a building block or a trade chip, but the evidence doesn’t suggest he’s become Todd Frazier just yet. Cozart’s an excellent defensive shortstop, so while the rest of the season is going to look like offensive collapse to the untrained eye, it actually might be a significant improvement over his preseason expectation. The combined projections have already added eight points of wOBA based on what they’ve seen so far. While telling you Cozart is a .295 wOBA hitter while he’s hitting .360 wOBA feels like a downer, telling you he’s a .295 wOBA hitter after he had a preseason projection of .280 wOBA is cause for celebration. Cozart has probably gotten better, even if his numbers will get worse for the next four months.