Zack Cozart has been figured out

Two weeks of baseball hardly gives us enough information to evaluate anything. Through two weeks, Coco Crisp and Dexter Fowler are two of the league’s best power hitters. Through two weeks, the Mets look like contenders.

At this point in the season, the average position player has had about 50 plate appearances and the average pitcher has thrown between 15 and 20 innings. It doesn’t make sense to write any player off just yet, but that is exactly what I am about to do.

After a posting a disappointing line in 2012, Cozart has struggled mightily in the early going. He can’t buy a hit, a walk, an extra base hit, or anything other than a ground out. The interesting thing about Cozart’s season thus far is that most of his peripherals haven’t changed much. He is making contact at a rate that is only slightly below what it was in 2012, and he is striking out just as often as he did last year. His plate discipline numbers look roughly the same. I wanted to write an article about Cozart before the season started, and it seems like my window for publishing something on him is getting smaller by the day—Dusty Baker is growing increasingly frustrated with his shortstop.

Cozart caught my attention because he is a dead-pull hitter. Actually, dead-pull might be an understatement. In 2012, roughly two out of every three balls Cozart hit were to left field. In 2013, we have seen more of the same (though we are looking at a small sample size). The power numbers don’t look so great, either. Cozart hit zero opposite field home runs in 2012, and two doubles.

Cozart’s inability to spread the ball across the field in his first full season as a major league ballplayer should have been a major concern for the Reds, as strong push/pull tendencies sometimes indicate that hitter might have a hole in his swing. It should be obvious that Cozart likes pitches on the inner half of the plate. The graph below confirms that most of his extra base hits have come off inside pitches.

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Cozart’s inability to hit to right field is concerning, because it is tough to pull outside pitches. Cozart made most of his outs on outside pitches in 2012, giving us further reason to suspect that he can’t go the other way.

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One thing that Cozart had going for him in 2012 was his pitch selection. Pitches on the outer half are tough to pull, and Cozart has yet to display any sort of opposite field approach. In 2012, he chose not to swing at pitches that he can’t pull, as the chart below confirms. Cozart’s plate discipline isn’t great, but this approach allowed him to play to his strengths. He avoids swinging at anything on the outer edge of the plate if he can, and he particularly doesn’t like anything down and away.

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2013: Word gets around

If major league pitchers find out that a hitter has a hole, they’ll attack it. Cozart doesn’t just have a hole, though, as he struggles with pitches on the entire right-hand side of the plate. Pitchers have made adjustments in 2013, so we’d hope that Cozart has improved his opposite field swing as well. How exactly are pitchers approaching Cozart in 2013? Take a look below.

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Pitchers are pounding the outside part of the plate in 2013, because they know that Cozart can’t hurt them here. It looks like a season’s worth of evidence has convinced pitching coaches that there is no reason to offer up a pitch that Cozart can pull. I’m sure Reds fans can confirm that Cozart’s at-bats look somewhat repetitive, to say the least.

Cozart is still attempting to take pitches on the outer half of the plate, and he has had to resort to this strategy too often this season. He can’t leave the bat on his shoulders all season, though. Cozart can thrive when he is selective in hitter-friendly counts, but he finds himself in trouble when he is behind.

Cozart is still pulling the ball, but the results aren’t the same as they were in 2012. He hasn’t made as much solid contact on pulled pitches, and is rolling over increasingly often. He ground ball percentage for pulled batted balls is absurdly high (currently 68.4 percent), and he makes an ideal infield shift candidate. His abysmal BABIP should obviously regress and give him some help, but not by much if teams begin to shift against him.

I know that it is still early, but I can imagine a scenario in which Cozart takes a trip to Triple-A Louisville to spend some time developing an opposite-field approach that will work at the major league level. True, the Reds need a starting shortstop now—but with such a glaring weakness in his offensive game, Cozart won’t be able to put up the numbers that he did last year. If Cozart works through this rough period in Cincinnati, he could learn a thing or two from teammate and opposite field hitting guru Joey Votto.

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Comments

  1. Travis said...

    In his last 5 games he has 9 hits with 3 doubles 2 homers and raised his average from .114 to .228.  He also has 7 runs and 3 RBI during that stretch.

  2. Todd said...

    I picked him up to replace Jose Reyes ;_;

    But he did go 3/5 with a 2B & HR last night. Obviously he’s fixed everything =P

  3. Noah Woodward said...

    Better results lately, but still only a single hit to the opposite field. I just think that, unless he changes things up, a pitching machine shooting fastballs down and away beats Zack Cozart nine times out of ten.

    He does sit in a position to score a lot of runs in that Cincinnati lineup. He does need to get on base to do that, though…and still only one walk on the season.

  4. Rodger said...

    It *feels* like the dead pull thing is common among many young hitters. Can you put Cozie’s numbers into context, instead of in isolation? It would be especially interesting when compared to other young SSs.

  5. Jack Weiland said...

    @Roger – I was thinking the same. Stephen Drew is also a dead pull hitter, but he’s carved out a somewhat successful career for himself.

  6. Nick Fleder said...

    Great read, Noah. For me – and you touched on it – the biggest variable on that team – fantasy wise, at least – is Dusty Baker. You never know what kind of leash he’ll give, who he has a crush on, what he’s looking at or missing (Juan Francisco as a platoon partner with Scott Rolen at some point deserved at least a look). Not as though that doesn’t apply to every manager, but I think that coupled with the pull concerns are enough for me to shop Cozart where I own him.

  7. Robert said...

    Interesting read. For fantasy purposes I had to pick him up to replace Aaron Hill at my MI spot.  My reasoning—his home/road splits favor very nicely for a heavy stretch of home games coming up. Evidence suggests I’ll get a good return on my investment.  Other observation—why are you writing and/or posting this article at 3AM?

  8. Ed Herrero said...

    He may only have 1 hit to right field (well 2 since he had a hit to right field tonight) and only 1 walk, but his strikeout rate is down. He had 119 K’s in 598 career at bats (1 every 5 at bats) going into the year and now has 8 K’s in 60 at bats ( 1 every 7.5 at bats). Shouldn’t his strikeout rate be increasing since he’s shown everyone this “weakness”?

  9. Noah Woodward said...

    @Jack and Rodger- For comparison, Drew’s pull% in his first full season (2007) was 46%. It has since dropped to around 39%. Interestingly enough, his pull% was at its lowest during his best season to date (2010) at 35%.

    @Ed- I think it would make sense for him to be striking out more, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Cozart has a pretty good contact rate and he has been rolling over on most of these pitches that he can’t pull.

  10. dan said...

    exactly who are they going to replace him with at shortstop if they send him to AAA? they are a team built on defense and have no replacement who is near as adequate defensively or who provides an offensive improvement to overcome any defensive shortcomings.

  11. Noah Woodward said...

    @dan – I agree completely. Right now, it makes sense for the Reds to keep Cozart at short for his defense. In an ideal world, it would benefit Cozart to start working on this aspect of his game…but I didn’t realize that the Reds don’t even have a shortstop on the AAA roster (unless you count Burriss). How crazy is that?

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