Thinking Inside the Box

Zack Cozart in Depth

Having gotten tired of trying to write about the entire, sputtering offense and having reached a point in the season where we can have some idea of what players are doing, I’ve decided to take the next several weeks (I’m going to do this until I get tired of it) and look in depth at one player in an attempt to deduce any trends outside the conventional stats that might give some idea of why he is doing well or not so well and if that figures to continue. I’m starting with Zack Cozart.

We all remember when Cozart came up and blew us away for a dozen games before he got hurt. During his first full season, he managed to provide an adequate bat for a shortstop with sparkling defense, but it’s been all downhill from there. This year, his 51 wRC+ is dead last in all of baseball among qualified players. That is, Zack Cozart has been the worst hitting every day player in the majors.┬áNo matter how much his defense sparkles, that ain’t gettin’ it done.

Looking at his traditional numbers, we see two things that don’t fit with his career to this point. HIs batting average is too low and so are his homers. Cozart doesn’t walk much, but he has traditionally hit with a high enough average and enough power to compensate (again, for a slick-fielding shortstop). But this year, that hasn’t been the case.

Looking at the first level of advanced stats, we see that his ISO (Isolated Power) and BABIP are way down. BABIP tends to have a lot do with luck, as I’m sure you all know, but ISO doesn’t usually. And it is possible that the drop in ISO could be reflected in a lower BABIP. That is, if he isn’t hitting the ball hard, it may explain why his BABIP, and thus his average, is so low this year.

This doesn’t seem to be the case on first look. This year, he’s hitting a line drive 18.2% of the time against a career rate of 18.6%. His fly balls are up a little and his ground balls are down a little, but not enough to cause the variations we’re seeing.

The one thing that does jump out is that his fly balls are only going for home runs 1.9% of the time. I went looking for his fly ball distance and found that he had lost about six feet of distance this year. His fly balls in 2013 averaged 260 feet, but this year, it’s 254. The site I was looking at also had the average angle and I noticed that he went from having a negative angle (hitting to left) last year to having a positive angle (hitting to right) this year.

And, in fact, if you look at Cozart’s spray charts from last year and this year, it’s pretty clear. It’s also clear (duh) that he hits the ball further when he pulls it.

I don’t know that Cozart’s sudden tendency to use the whole field explains everything about what has gone wrong this year, but I do think it explains a lot of it. It probably explains nearly all of the power drop. Cozart reportedly changed his approach last August to use the whole field, but it isn’t paying dividends. I wonder if he might simply be the kind of player whose marginal power requires him to pull the ball if he’s going to take advantage of it. He doesn’t seem to have enough juice to hit it out to right with any kind of consistency.

In any case, the pull-hitting Cozart of previous year hit enough to be an average or even slightly above average player when his hitting was combined with his defense. The one who uses the whole field… not so much.

32 thoughts on “Zack Cozart in Depth

  1. It is hard to quantify but I see Cozart taking a lot of off-balanced hacks at outside pitches. If he makes contact (a big if) it almost always results in a weak popout to the right side.

    • He’s lunging and swing off his front foot. Every. Single. At bat. You get no lower doing that. He isn’t using his back leg and hips to drive the ball. That also takes away his ability to hit consistently up the middle or opposite field.

      This is easy to see. He needs to be hitting off a tee that’s close to his back leg every day until he stops lunging.

    • In my opinion its the hitting coach or lack thereof. He isn’t the only player who is not hitting.

  2. Worst hitting ever day player in the majors says it all… And yet he is rolled out there just about every day. The pitcher would better serve the Reds batting in the 8 hole than Cozart. Why dont we just bring up a guy from Billings and put him in the lineup?

    • Well, in fairness, he is also one of the best defensive players in the game. It works out so that he’s merely been below average this year, not catastrophic.

      Ludwick, by contrast, has hit better but been less valuable as a player.

      • For a team that has now been struggling offensively for a few years there is no room to carry a wonder defensive tool when he always owns a wuffle bat to his skill set. Reds have enough good defense to not worry about losing Cozart. Find someone who has some popl and good OBP ability and put him in short.

        • This is flawed thinking. I mean, I think they should be looking for a replacement and I’ve said that, but value is value. If Cozart had saved 40 runs with defense instead of 20, he’d be more than playable even with his bat. It doesn’t matter how you balance the scales, it just matters that they’re balanced.

        • I think Dale actually made a minor point. A team full of elite defensive players who hit poorly would not win many games, regardless of what their dWAR says.

          One, the defensive metrics fluctuate wildly, so it’s really difficult to trust them and plan around them. We all have a general sense that Zack Cozart is very good at defense, but it’s really hare to measure just how good he is, whereas offense is super easy.

          Second, there is a minimum level of runs a team must score to win games, and the defense can only save so many runs (I suppose this is essentially the difference between ERA and FIP, though I suspect it’s more complicated than that).

          Finally, if OBP is most correlated with scoring runs, it’s possible that the mix of players on the Reds simply have too many low OBP in their everyday lineups. They may get more marginal benefit from a better hitting SS, even if the SS’s better offense was offset by the decrease in dWAR. The combo of Hamilton, BP, Cozart, Pena, Schumaker, and whoever is playing LF is pretty brutal.

          Of course, finding a replacement for Cozart is much more difficult than Dale makes it out to be, and wouldn’t be cheap or easy.

        • At this point in the season, yes. 2.0 for a season is generally considered about average. Though, I think for an everyday player 2.5 might be more accurate.

    • So replace him with another weak hitting option that doesn’t play elite defense? There’s a problem with this line of thinking.

  3. Cozart is the third Reds player to see his power suddenly drop in recent memory, the others being Stubbs and Heisey. All of them appear to have tinkered with their swings so that they became more complete hitters. I don’t know if the changes were due to Reds’ organizational hitting philosophy, or player-driven, but the results have been pretty dismal.

    Of course, this could also be pitchers taking advantage of enhanced data/scouting reports, or *cough* *cough* enhanced drug testing *cough*.

  4. This series is an excellent idea. I’m looking forward to seeing how Billy Hamilton has improved month-by-month. :/

  5. For years, I have watched as Cozart takes a nearly identical swing at any pitch. The swing is the classic right handed pull stoke with the dipped from shoulder and head tilt. This technique has lost favor over the years as it leads to the head moving (lose sight of the ball) and the obvious tendency to only be able to pull. I see the is swing as the major, unfixable problem, as he has an inability to hit outside and up and chases anything with a wrinkle. I agree he has increased his balls to RF but most of these are powerless popups, as mentioned here. Brandon phillips on the other hand changed his stroke to flatten out and punch outside pitches to RF. CONCLUSION – its time to move on.

  6. Thanks for the analysis of his drop in power. It has been quite a sudden decline. Ideally, Cozart would be a great backup middle infielder/3b and late inning defensive substitute. However, that would be dependent on a good field/good hit SS in a Reds uniform. As far as I can tell, that person does not exist. Perhaps it will be Blandino in a year or two. Until then, Cozart will have to continue to provide virtually all value through his defense.

    • I don’t think Blandino is really a SS at the MLB level or even the higher minors. If he does make it at SS, it will be his bat that keeps him there. I don’t think he’ll ever be a plus fielder at SS. I think we need to keep looking for that long term solution at SS.

      • I agree with you. Blandino is more of a 2B than a SS. The Cubs seem to have a surplus of SS from A ball up to the ML level. I saw the Cubs AA SS play this weekend. Addison Russell whom they got from the A’s. He is a legit SS. Can play defense very well. He is big, strong and can hit with power. Baez just got promoted to the Cubs. Russell may get promoted to AAA because of that.

      • I think that the Reds may be thinking Carlton Daal, if he learns to make less errors. I think Bandino is a 2b.

  7. Watching Cozart last night with no pitcher batting behind him, I was struck by the thought that maybe Cozart is actually hurt a little bit batting 8th. He won’t take the walks often given to the guy hitting in front of the pitcher, but opposing pitchers aren’t going to give him anything good to hit. So he sees fewer fastballs and gets himself out by making weak contact with the borderline junk that gets thrown his way.

    Perhaps he’d do better batting 7th. Just a theory–I have no idea if the data would back me up that he’s seeing a different pitch mix or that having him in front of the pitcher is hurting him.

    • Good theory… I think pitchers would still work around him. He doesn’t take walks so why throw him many strikes? Work just outside the zone and let him get himself out. That’s pretty much the scouting report.

  8. Very interesting piece, Jason. I was one of the proponents of getting Cozart (and Heisey, Stubbs, Bruce – pretty much everyone not named Joey Votto) to begin using the entire field like the St. Louis Cardinals seem to do.

    But it’s evident that Heisey and Cozart don’t have HR/XBH power to all fields in them–just the pull side. That said, we don’t need them to hit for power, we just need them to hit the ball hard to all fields. A guy like Jay Bruce–well, we need him to hit for power all over the yard (something he can do).

    I think the answer is in the swing mechanics, like CAPTAINHOOK and WHOA BUNDY said. In order to hit the ball hard up the middle and the other way, it takes a different kind of swing. It takes a concerted effort to keep the front shoulder closed and to allow the ball to travel deep into the hitting pocket; it takes patience to let it travel and then to bash the inside part of the baseball. It’s a different timing than spinning on a middle-in pitch, and it takes exceptional pitch recognition to be able to do both, something not many players possess.

    We’ve seen both Cozart and Heisey take, swing and miss on and/or swing late and foul off numerous pitches this season that in the past were in their “hot zone” (term used loosely).

    So maybe the answer is to play to their strengths of spinning on the inside fastball while being willing to take a quicker/shorter/easier stroke on the pitches on the outer half. Brandon Phillips has made great strides in that regard, and as a result has become a much more effective 2-strike hitter (at least it seems that way).

    Both Cozart and Heisey have value because of their defense, but in order for the Reds to get where we all want them to get, the consistency at the plate for these two and Jay Bruce has got to improve.

    • I am flattered and wonder what I might possibly have done to merit such esteem.

      It’s probably my roguish good looks and my knowledge of arcane literature.

  9. Watching Cozart hit, it always seems to me like the bat is too heavy. I think he should try going down in weight slightly and maybe it will level out the swing some.

  10. Cozart should finish the year with about 1.8 fWAR, down only 0.2 from last year. His defensive value is up, while hitting is down. I’m not too concerned yet about his bat, in part because of the low BABIP, though I will be if he doesn’t rebound to around 80 wRC+ next year.

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