Zack Cozart, Todd Frazier, and #2 Hitters

Before yesterday’s game, Dusty Baker talked about his line-up choices, specifically his decision to stick with Zack Cozart in the #2 spot in the order despite his .261 on base percentage. From John Fay’s article:

“You’ve got to learn some kind of way,” Baker said. “Someday, he’s going to be an excellent second hitter. We’re teaching guys how to hit at the big league level. There’s a difference between swinging and hitting.”

The original plane was to hit Brandon Phillips second. He was moved to cleanup after Ryan Ludwick was hurt on Opening Day. Choo (7), Chris Heisey (7), Derrick Robinson (6), Cesar Izturis (5) and Xavier Paul (3) have hit second.

“You can’t hit everyone down in the order,” Baker said.

Baker has dismissed the idea of hitting Joey Votto second, so Cozart it is. Baker had Cozart in the his office early Thursday afternoon to talk hitting.

“He’s got to stay out of the air, No. 1,” Baker said. “There’s nothing up in the air but outs. He had it for a while. But this is the nature of the game. Nobody’s up all the time. He had dug himself a pretty big hole to start the season.

“He’s hit some balls hard and got nothing. In my mind, hitting the ball hard is not struggling.”

Cozart hit .246 with a .288 on-base last year.

“Every year’s different,” Baker said. “They call it sophomore jinx. I think it’s sophomore adjustment.

While there’s a decent case to be made for hitting Votto second, there are some disadvantages. Having Choo and Votto back to back would make it very easy for opposing managers to deploy their LH specialists in high leverage situations without forcing that pitcher to face any right-handed bats in order to get both. While the traditional mindset of what a #2 hitter should be is mostly foolish, there is some value in putting a right-handed hitter between Choo and Votto. And so, here’s my question; why isn’t Todd Frazier at least getting some consideration?

He’s not a high OBP guy either, but outside of Choo and Votto, the Reds don’t really have any high OBP guys. Relative to the rest of his teammates, Frazier kind of is a high OBP guy. He’s also right-handed, and has enough power to make lefty specialists pay if they come in to face Choo and try to stick around long enough to face Votto.

Here are their 2013 numbers, side by side.

Todd Frazier 340 10% 23% 0.159 0.292 0.241 0.332 0.400 0.323
Zack Cozart 367 4% 15% 0.126 0.252 0.231 0.261 0.356 0.267

So far this year, Frazier has basically been Cozart with an extra 70 points of on base percentage. Cozart actually has 27 extra base hits to Frazier’s 26, so you can’t really argue that Frazier’s power would be wasted in the #2 spot while hitting Cozart there. In actuality, Frazier’s power might be getting wasted in the #6 spot, where he’s most often hit this year.

Here are the amount of baserunners each of the Reds first six hitters in the line-up have had when they came to the plate this year:

1. Choo, 173
2. Cozart, 241
3. Votto, 250
4. Phillips, 288
5. Bruce, 277
6. Frazier, 214

You might think having Frazier hitting 6th is useful to drive in the middle of the order guys and keep rallies going, but in Phillips and Bruce, the Reds already have two moderate-to-low OBP guys who drive in a large percentage of their baserunners and don’t really leave much for Frazier. Note the giant drop-off from Bruce to Frazier; this is the residue of hitting behind a guy with a .323 OBP who also has launched 18 home runs.

The only real advantage Cozart has over Frazier is in contact rate, which is one of the traditional methods of deciding who hits second. Managers have been putting high contact slap hitters in the #2 hole in the order for decades, as they liked the ability to put on a hit-and-run without fear of the batter swinging through the pitch and getting the runner thrown out. They also prefer to have a #2 hitter who can hit the ball to the right side to get the leadoff hitter from second to third and setup a sac fly for the #3 hitter; they call this “playing the game the right way”, even though it’s really making two outs and having a rally end with just one run scored.

But, here’s the thing: Cozart hasn’t even really been any better at this kind of situational hitting than Frazier has. Cozart has hit with a man on second and nobody out 24 times, and has moved that runner to third on 15 of those 24 opportunities, good for a 63% “success” rate. Frazier has had 19 opportunities to do the same, and has moved the runner to third 12 times. 12 out of 19 is — drumroll please — 63%.

What about the speed aspect? Some managers like having a distraction on the bases in front of their big hitters, hoping that the threat of a stolen base will lead to more fastballs or less concentration from the pitcher when facing a hitter who can make them pay. Well, Cozart has 141 opportunities to steal a base this year, and he hasn’t run once. Of the regulars, Cozart is actually the only Red who hasn’t attempted a steal this year; Frazier is 5 for 7, if you’re curious.

I know that Dusty Baker is never going to be a big fan of FanGraphs, or our way of thinking about baseball, but hitting Todd Frazier in the #2 spot instead of Zack Cozart isn’t that radical of a suggestion. You’re still using a right-handed hitter to break up the lefties. You’re still putting a guy near the top of the line-up who isn’t a primary run producer. He’s not slow, so he’s not going “clog the bases”. He draws walks, which Baker clearly sees as valuable from his leadoff hitter, since that is Shin-Soo Choo’s primary skill.

If you want to point to Todd Frazier’s strikeout rate as a disqualifier, I’ll simply point out that the difference between Cozart’s 15% K% and Frazier’s 23% K% would add up to about 25 extra strikeouts over the remainder of the season, and that’s if you believe that Cozart won’t regress back to something closer to the 18% mark that he posted last year. Instead of striking 25 times, Cozart will instead make 25 in-play outs, some of which will result in a runner advancing and some of which will result in a double play. Cozart’s additional contact skills won’t actually add much value to the Reds.

But Frazier’s massive advantage in OBP would. Right now, the difference is 70 points. The ZIPS/Steamer forecasts project a 30 point advantage in Frazier’s favor of the rest of the season. Even of just half a season, that would add up to about 10 extra times on base for Frazier compared to Cozart. 10 extra times that Votto comes up with a man on, or that instead of having Choo at second with one out and first base open, now there are runners at first and second and they can’t pitch around the Reds first baseman.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t the end of the world. Batting order doesn’t make that big of a difference. The Reds can make the playoffs with Zack Cozart hitting second. But, really, for a team in the playoff race, they should be taking advantage of every opportunity they can find to improve their chances of winning, however small those improvements might be. I get that hitting Votto second is too radical of an idea for Baker, but hitting Frazier second isn’t quite as crazy sounding, and it would make them better too.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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As a Pirates fan, I hope Dusty sticks with Cozart.