It was a real shame to see Zack Cozart’s season end on a routine sprint to first base. Everything was going right for the guy for the first time in years: His walk rate, a career high (6.5%). His strikeout rate, the lowest of his career (13.6%). The result through 53 games was his best triple-slash line in years (.258/.310/.459) to pair nicely with his always superlative defense.
Enter Eugenio Suarez. The chief return for Alfredo Simon stepped right into the shortstop role on June 11 and promptly hit .328 with three doubles and two homers in his 66 plate appearances over the rest of that month. Since then, his batting average has dipped but his power has come to the forefront (.287 average with 11 doubles, one triple, and seven home runs since July 1). Whatever woes have befallen the Reds’ offense at various points of this season, production from the shortstop position hasn’t been one of them.
For writing a comparison of Cozart and Suarez, now is as good a time as ever—the sample sizes are pretty close to one another with Suarez having just 40 more plate appearances than Cozart so far this year. When you stack their offensive numbers next to each other, more similarities appear than just their home run totals (both have nine):
I chose wOBA to measure their overall offensive production since it’s a little easier to understand than wRC+ (think of wOBA as you would on-base percentage: Around .320 is what you should expect from an average major leaguer and around .360 is pretty darn good year. For context, Joey Votto’s 2015 wOBA is .424 and Jay Bruce’s is .317).
For Cozart, that’s an awfully good year and his first wOBA over .300 in a full season since joining the MLB club (his 11 game stint in 2011 produced a .353 wOBA, but in just 38 PA). Even if you regress his career-bests in walk and strikeout rates closer to his career marks (4.8% BB%, 16.3% K%), the latter is still significantly better than Suarez’s strikeout rate.
And then there’s that BABIP, which is a good .018 points under the career mark he had heading into this season (and is identical to his 2015 batting average, which is a pretty cool statistical rarity). Of course, his fly ball rate—3.9% higher than the next-highest season of his career—is one culprit, especially as it continued to rise through his last month of action. But his home run-to-fly ball rate combined with near-bests in line drive rate (19.3%) and hard-hit rate (25.4%) make it reasonable to think Cozart was a little unlucky on balls in play.
The one thing with wOBA is that it doesn’t take one’s position into account. Even though around .320 is league average (in 2015, it’s actually .312), that’s across the board regardless of whether one is a middle-of-the-order corner infielder or defense-first outfielder. Looking at just shortstops, league average wOBA is .293 this season, which alone makes Cozart’s performance at the plate more impressive. Indeed, among all his fellow shortstops in the majors this year (with a minimum of 200 PA), Cozart’s wOBA ranks eighth, tied with Xander Bogaerts and only .006 points behind one of the cogs of this year’s Cardinals lineup, Jhonny Peralta.
Of course, we already know another name above him on that list—Eugenio Suarez is third amongst all MLB shortstops in wOBA, just a hair above Brandon Crawford, Francisco Lindor, and Troy Tulowitzki.
Suarez’s lack of MLB experience makes his stat line a little less scrutable. However, he is also pretty close to his total of plate appearances last season, so it’s worth taking a look at his 2014 and 2015 side by side:
The only real negative is the decline in his walk rate, although that seems reasonable with a roughly six percent increase in swing rate over last year and the slight decline in his strikeout rate. It seems like Suarez has effectively traded some plate discipline for a big boost in power. That increase in slugging percentage doesn’t quite fit one aspect of his batted ball metrics—his ground ball rate has actually gone up over six percent from last year while his fly ball and line drive rates have correspondingly dipped—but is somewhat backed up by an over eight percent decrease in the pitches he’s hit softly into play (which itself makes sense in the context of that big leap in HR/FB rate).
That .355 BABIP is certainly unsustainable (unless you’re Votto) but Suarez is, so far, setting a precedent of keeping it above .300 (with the huge caveat that he’s still something like five more seasons from having a career BABIP that could be considered ‘stabilized’). More hard-hit balls certainly help in this department as well and that will be the metric to keep an eye on in tandem with his BABIP going forward. But there’s some consolation in knowing that we don’t know exactly what kind of MLB hitter Eugenio Suarez is just yet—perhaps his true talent level is something along the lines of a .300-.330 BABIP. It certainly would be nice if that is indeed the case.
Of course, the great differentiator is defense. We know Cozart’s glove. We love Cozart’s glove. Though advanced fielding metrics are still somewhere between rudimentary and misleading, defensive runs saved (DRS) does a pretty good job of enumerating Zack Cozart’s defensive prowess. DRS is a total for the season of how many runs one man at one position prevented over the average player at that same position. Cozart’s career high came last year with a whopping 19 (although that was still a good ways off from Andrelton Simmons’ 28 in 2014 and the same’s insane 41 DRS season in 2013). This year, he posted a solid 7 DRS in just under 450 innings.
How does DRS view Suarez? A little unkindly—his DRS for this season is -4, which follows a -5 mark in 622.1 innings last season. In the context of this season, that’s just a hair worse than Jean Segura and a shade better than Starlin Castro. That’s not bad with the offense Suarez is providing, but it’s certainly a heck of a drop-off from Cozart.
It should obvious, then, that Suarez and Cozart’s overall value is incredibly similar when combining offense, defense, and baserunning—Cozart posted a 1.3 WAR though his 53 games while Suarez has managed a 1.5 WAR in 62 games thus far. That’s ostensibly dead even.
It also seems to tell us what we’ve already been thinking: Cozart was having such a good year, he deserves to have his job back next season to see if he can keep it up. But Suarez’s bat is far too good to not play nearly every day. Suarez’s great arm makes a move to third base the perfect solution if not for a certain Home Run Derby champion more than holding his own at the hot corner. Moving him to second base seems like a waste of his arm and, to be fair, unnecessary with Brandon Phillips still providing well above-average defense (and flair). Of course, there’s always the island of misfit fielders—left field—which remains unclaimed for the time being.
So begins the competition for 2016’s starting shortstop job. When you’re as offensively-challenged as this Reds ball club is, problems like this are no problem at all.