Zack Cozart is a really good defensive shortstop. REALLY good.
Defensive metrics adore him. In 2014, Cozart saved the second most runs — 19 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) — among shortstops, behind only the immortal Andrelton Simmons (28 DRS). Cozart also posted a 12.1 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), good for third among all shortstops. At a premium defensive position, Cozart provides premium defensive value.
Yet, with all that defensive value, the 29-year-old posted only the 17th best fWAR (1.2) among shortstops in 2014 because of his bat.
Other than his September call-up in 2011, Zack Cozart has never hit for average and power in the major leagues. But 2014 was a disaster, as Cozart batted .221/.268/.300. He has never excelled at reaching base, but the steep drop in power added to his offensive woes. According to Fangraphs, Cozart had the lowest wRC+ (56) among qualified batters, that means 44% worse than league average. Cozart may have been the worst hitting regular in all of baseball. On a Reds team that ranked 28th in runs scored, he was certainly the weakest hitter for a non-pitching starter.
When Walt Jocketty pulled off the great winter meeting heist and acquired 23-year-old shortstop Eugenio Suarez from the Detroit Tigers, fans and pundits saw Suarez as a replacement for Cozart. After all, the Reds need to upgrade on offense and Suarez comes with a reputation as someone who can handle the bat a little bit. In the last Redleg Nation podcast, Chad and Jason mentioned the possibility of Suarez starting based on his solid minor league numbers. But with just 277 plate appearances at the major league level, is Suarez ready to start for the Reds in 2015? Is the perceived upgrade on offense enough to offset CozartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s excellent defense? LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s take a look at the numbers.
Eugenio Suarez hit .242/316/.336 with an 85 wRC+ in 277 plate appearances for the Tigers in 2014. By todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s standards, Suarez got on base at an average clip but displayed little power. We canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t draw too many conclusions from 277 plate appearances, but SuarezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s minor league numbers show promise.
The following table highlights SuarezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s numbers and how they compare with CozartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s minor league career.
The two shortstopsÃ‚Â were kind enough to have a similar number of plate appearances, making this comparison especially useful. Cozart displayed slightly more power and Suarez had a slightly better batting average. But the biggest difference between the two is that Suarez was much better at getting on base. Thirty points of OBP is pretty significant. Interestingly, SuarezÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s major league .316 OBP in 2014 was 35 points better than CozartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s career high OBP of.281, consistent with their performance in the minors.
Suarez walks at a higher rate and the minor league gap between the two should probably be wider. In 2011, Cozart had an abnormal (for him) 11.6% BB%. He’d never had a walk rate over 6.6% in any other season. If you subtract the outlier, CozartÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s walk rate in the minors was 6%, much closer to the miserable 4.6% BB% he has posted in his major league career.
We have evidence that walk rates carry over from the minor leagues to the major leagues, and the Reds need more players that can get on base. As a 23 year old, Suarez already appears to have better on base skills than Cozart and is young enough to improve. Cozart will turn 30 in August and is what he is at the plate.
Who starts in 2015 really depends on whether Cozart can bounce back offensively. If Cozart can post a wRC+ between 80-85, he has enough value that his defense becomes difficult to take off the field. The Reds can win with Zack Cozart hitting 15-20% below league average. They will struggle to keep him in the lineup if he hits 40% below league average like he did in 2014.
The early returns suggest that Suarez can play average defense at shortstop. Baseball America suggests he might be a bit better than that. His short stint with the Tigers last year produced slightly below average defensive numbers (-5 DRS, -0.1 UZR). What kind of offense will he need to provide to start at shortstop over Cozart? HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s guessing league average offense will be enough to force Bryan PriceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hand.
Regardless of what happens, the Reds have a viable alternative to Zack Cozart for the first time since he took over shortstop in 2012. Well done, Walt.