Can Zack Cozart Maintain His Early-Season Success?
Comparing the career numbers of Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart to what he's done so far this season reminds me of the phrase "all good things must come to an end."
Perhaps that's a gloomy mindset, especially when analyzing baseball -- essentially a game of entertainment for most fans -- so I'll give Cozart the benefit of the doubt and look more closely at what he's done so far in 2016 before resorting to any additional old-English quotes.
Signs of Life
Entering the 2016 season, Cozart's career slash was .245/.284/.375, with 96 walks to 329 strikeouts, a .274 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and a .130 Isolated Power (ISO) in 500 games played (2,013 plate appearances).
Despite these poor career numbers, Cozart showed signs of starting to turn things around during the 2015 season.
He was limited to just 53 games played (214 plate appearances), but his walk percentage (BB%) of 6.5, strikeout percentage (K%) of 13.6, .201 ISO, and .328 wOBA all would have been career highs if he had enough plate appearances to qualify and would have been among the best at his position. Cozart's K%, ISO, and wOBA all would have ranked within the top-seven among shortstops last season. However, despite the improvements, his slash was still just .258/.310/.459.
Cozart has built on what he did a season ago, slashing .347/.350/.533 with a .372 wOBA through 19 games (80 plate appearances) in 2016, and his batting average ranks ninth best among hitters with at least 80 plate appearances.
Included in his impressive start is a home run off New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey, which lead off the game.
Zack Cozart leads off the ballgame a solo blast for the @Reds!
Don't miss the action: https://t.co/xGMTHp7yG9https://t.co/Roh63Dzoq6
— FOX Sports Ohio (@FOXSportsOH) April 27, 2016
This was Cozart’s second homer of the season -- a number he’s still stuck on -- but has helped lead to an ISO of .187, which is fourth best among shortstops with at least 80 plate appearances. The long ball was also a rarity, as Harvey has only given up two home runs this season in 28 1/3 innings pitched, and it was only the second time ever he’s allowed a leadoff dinger.
Matt Harvey allowed a leadoff HR to Zack Cozart, the 2nd leadoff HR Harvey has allowed in his career and 1st since 2012 (Jimmy Rollins)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 27, 2016
So Cozart is playing well so far this season, but can he keep up his early season success?
At first glance, Cozart has an immediate red flag. His BABIP is .369, which is well above his career .274 BABIP entering 2016. It’s also well above the current league average of .297, which suggests that Cozart’s batting average is going to start dropping as his BABIP begins to normalize.
However, BABIP can be somewhat controlled by the hitter, so let’s see if this is the case with Cozart.
There are two types of batted balls that are more likely to turn into hits -- those that are hit hard and ones that are line drives. So far in 2016, Cozart is surpassing his career averages in both categories.
His percentage of balls in play that were hit with a hard speed (Hard%) is 28.6, well above his career total of 23.9 percent. The same can be said for Cozart’s line drive percentage (LD%), which is 25.4 percent, a significant improvement on his career LD% of 18.8.
Cozart is hitting the ball harder than ever and producing more line drives than ever, which is likely the cause of his high BABIP. If he’s able to sustain each total, his BABIP will not decrease down to his low career average (.274), although it can still be expected to fall since it's unusually high. Only nine hitters posted a .369 BABIP or better in 2015.
Despite the inflated BABIP, it shouldn’t be a reason to automatically discount Cozart’s hot start. His inability to draw walks should be, however.
Cozart has just two walks in his 80 plate appearances this season, giving him a 2.5 BB%, which is sixth worst, and he has yet to draw a walk against a right-handed pitcher.
He has rarely kept the bat on his shoulder this season -- the percentage of pitches he swings at (Swing%) is 52.6 percent, which is 20th highest -- but at least he’s not missing the pitches he does swing at and he’s not chasing balls, either.
Cozart’s O-Swing%, which is the percentage of pitches he swings at outside of the strike zone is just 26.2 percent, an improvement on his career average, and the percent of pitches he makes contact with that are inside the strike zone (Z-Contact%) is 92.9 percent, also an improvement from his career average, although slight.
The statistic that jumps out the most on this table is Cozart’s O-Contact%, which is the percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone he makes contact with. His percentage in 2016 is just about 10 points lower than his career average, which is positive, because it’s usually more difficult to make good contact with a pitch that is a ball than one that is a strike.
In other words, Cozart swings at everything that’s a strike and rarely misses entirely. This strategy has worked for him so far this season, but it's difficult to prove that it will last.
Generally speaking, hitters who are able to draw a high percentage of walks are usually superior at determining what is and isn’t a strike. This often leads to an increase in walks, but perhaps more importantly, it also implies that the hitter is able to create better contact by selectively swinging at pitches that he knows he can hit hard, even if it means spitting on certain pitches that are within the strike zone.
In Cozart’s case, he’s doing a good job of not swinging at balls, but he’s also not being selective with the strikes he swings at, which spells trouble moving forward, especially when paired with an inflated BABIP.
Our models currently project Cozart to slash .275/.314/.429 with a .316 wOBA in 2016, which is a significant drop-off from his current pace. Based on his profile this season -- specifically batted balls and plate discipline -- this forecast looks accurate. However, if he’s able to play a full season, all of these numbers would be new career highs. (Although a .316 wOBA as a career high isn't saying much.)
This would make for a solid campaign for Cozart, despite falling off from his early season success, and something to build on moving forward. But at 30 years old, the window for development and significant improvement is quickly closing.