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Updating the Top 100: Zack Cozart

In which we practice the art of saying nice things.

Michael B. Thomas

A few years ago, I ran a series which took a stab at identifying the 100 best players in Reds history.  I've subsequently made updates as active players have bubbled up the list.  Now at the end of the (mostly disappointing) 2014 season, it's time to re-order the pantheon.

As a way to set the table, here's the top 100 list as of the end of 2013.  The reference page now includes links to the player write-ups.  Brief methodology notes are:

  • Players are ranked using a modified Win Shares approach which places a greater emphasis on a player's peak value.
  • One of the intended consequences of the above bullet is that the metric's very low replacement level makes it nearly impossible for players to move backwards on the list, even after forgettable seasons.
  • As you may imagine, the preceding note comes into play when evaluating 2014.
  • As a way of increasing page clicks for the Vox Empire, I run profiles on any active Cincy player currently in the top 250.
  • Those profiles begin today.

In the immortal words of Uni-Kitty, "stay positive, stay positive."  So: Zack Cozart has stolen eleven bases in his career without every getting thrown out.  That's amazing!  Literally perfect.

Also, Cozart has perhaps emerged as an elite or near-elite defender at a premium defensive position.  To wit, Cozart finished second among NL shortstops in "Total Zone Runs", which is a metric which may or may not be meaningful.  Cozart is also second in defensive WAR in his league/position group.  One of the things I look for when trying to make sense of the defensive metrics is if the multiple sources agree with one another.  And with Cozart they do, sort of.  What appears to be truthy is that Cozart ranked near the top of the league at saving runs from the shortstop position in 2014, exactly one season after turning in a basically average season under the same metrics.  Volatility reigns in baseball, as ever.  This isn't likely to rank as a terribly bold proclamation, but Zack Cozart is a pretty good fielding shortstop who had a really good year with the glove.

Any more positives?  Let's the end of the season, Cozart's most frequent career position in the batting order was #8 instead of #2.  Does that count?

OK, so Cozart was an unmitigated disaster at the plate.  His slash line of .221/.268/.300 was just two fruitless at-bats away from giving him three slash inputs under 300.  This accomplishment doesn't have a cool moniker like the Mendoza Line, but it should.  Name it after Rey Ordonez, maybe.  Anyways, it was a bad year, and one that was probably colored by a healthy dose of bad luck.  Cozart's BABIP was down 30 points from his career norms and where in the past a fly ball off of Cozart's bat had at least a chance of landing in the seats, this year that, like, never happened: just 2.2% of Cozart's fly balls in 2014 brought fireworks, down from his career line of 7%.  If we were to normalize those two particular metrics, then Cozart has a pretty standard (for him) batting line, and everyone is praising him for a very nice season.

We should probably assume as a baseline that Cozart's 2014 dips were somewhat fluky.  His strikeout rate didn't spike and there's no reason to think that he suddenly lost all his power overnight.  It's possible that as pitching strength rises league-wide that certain marginal hitters will be completely neutered, but again-a guy in his physical prime who has a non-insignificant amount of power who actually improved his contact could have all been an unlucky roll of the dice.

While that means we can probably expect a dead cat bounce in 2015, it also serves to point out two things about the Reds, organizationally.  First, the franchise is absolutely all-in on Cozart.  Who else is there?  They have to hope that Alex Blandino pans out, and in a hurry; or they have to make a trade (which is predicated on another team being willing to unload a legitimate starting shortstop); or they have to make a free agent splash, which: LOL.  Cozart is arbitration eligible in 2015, by the way, to add to the levity.

The second organizational observation is that a team without any offensive stars can't afford any black holes in the lineup.  Put another way, the team possibly could have weathered Votto's injury, but only if Bruce didn't crater and Phillips didn't get hurt and Hamilton didn't disappear and Cozart hit .260 with a little power.  You know the rest.  If you want to spin this optimistically, you can rely on the law of averages and assume that all the team's bad luck was used up in 2014.

Zack Cozart has played 447 games for the Reds and has never appeared at any position other than shortstop.  He has 406 hits, 200 runs scored, and a career slash line of .243/.281/.365, for an OPS+ of 77.  This is his debut on the Honorable Mention list, coming in at #230.  He also appears on the list of greatest shortstops in team history, debuting at #14 and displacing Tom Downey, who played with the team from 1909 through 1911.

Top 15 Shortstops in Reds history


Barry Larkin


Dave Concepcion


Leo Cardenas


Roy McMillan


Tommy Corcoran


Germany Smith


Billy Myers


Eddie Miller


Buck Herzog


Larry Kopf


Eddie Joost


Hod Ford


Felipe Lopez


Zack Cozart


Ike Caveney