From 2012-2014 fans pretty much knew what to expect from Zack Cozart. He was going to be an incredibly good defensive player and struggle at the plate. The numbers bear this conclusion out. From 2012 to 2014 Cozart, at his best, was 17% worse than a league average hitter. At his worst he was 45% worse (2014). These numbers are based on Fangraphs' wRC+ statistic.
However, even with those offensive struggles Cozart was still a 1-2 win player for Cincinnati because of his defense. In 2014, his worst offensive season, he ranked as the second best shortstop in baseball by DRS (19), and the third best shortstop by UZR (12.1). It's fair to say that if Andrelton Simmons didn't exist, then Cozart potentially would have been discussed as the best defensive shortstop in the league. The front office and fans alike were left to dream: how good could Cozart be if he started to figure things out at the plate?
That dream was given a little bit of hope in 2015. Prior to his season ending knee injury, Cozart was actually above average offensively. All of a sudden he was hitting .258/.310/.459 with nine home runs. His K% was at a career low 13.6%. This is part of what made Cozart's injury so devastating. Of course it was tough to lose someone so good at a premium position, but it hurt even more because it felt like he was finally figuring things out at the plate. In the midst of his success, most analysts pointed back to his track record to argue that this output couldn't last.
Fans were forced to wait until 2016 to see if Cozart's growth offensively was sustainable. Through ten games in 2016 Cozart is hitting .432/.425/.568. Obviously he can't continue to hit this well, but it's encouraging that he hasn't fallen back to his pre-2015 numbers. As of last night he has a hit in all ten of his games, and by wRC+ (173) he's been the Reds best offensive player so far this season.
No one expects Cozart to keep up this pace, but if he could just be average offensively that's a huge development for Cincinnati. So what's been fueling this output? Are there any reasons to believe that it will continue?
He's Striking Out Less
Cozart has always been below the league average in K%, but the past few seasons he's dropped that number even further. In 2015 the major league average K% was 20.4%. In 2015, Cozart dropped his rate all the way to 13.6%. This season he has it down to an unsustainable 2.8%, but for now it's clearly helping his production. Looking further into the numbers there's an obvious reason why this is happening.
He's swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone
One of the most encouraging signs so far in 2016 is that Cozart's plate discipline numbers are clearly heading in the right direction. He's swinging at a career low 26.2% of pitches out of the zone, and he's upped his rate of swinging at pitchers in the zone to 73%. For sake of comparison he swung at 30.4% of pitches out of the zone last season, and 65.2% of pitches in the zone last season. This greater discipline has led to the highest contact rate of Cozart's career, 93%. Swinging at strikes, not swinging at balls, and making contact more often seems like a pretty good recipe for more success at the plate.
He's owned the inner part of the plate
Cozart has always hit balls on the inside part of the plate relatively well. However, in 2015 and 2016 he has raked when a pitcher comes inside. The charts below (courtesy of Brooks Baseball) show just how well he's handle pitches on the inner half lately.
As long as the pitch isn't up in the zone, Cozart has hit at least .412 on balls inside. He's having even more success on balls inside that are out of the zone hitting .667. Eventually pitchers might just stop throwing in to him, but for now he's making the most of that part of the plate.
All of these factors are great, but there is one reason for his success that clearly seems to indicate he'll take his expected step back.
His BABIP is way up
Those that question Cozart's development will point to his unsustainable BABIP this season as the primary reason for his success. Clearly to some degree they're right. His .441 BABIP will be impossible to sustain. For companions sake, the BABIP leader in MLB last season was Obdubel Herrera with .387. Over time "luck" will catch up with Cozart, and some of those balls falling in for hits will turn in to outs. However, it's worth noting that during his unexpected success in 2015, his BABIP was only .258. Of course he won't hit this well, but his BABIP shouldn't lead you to dismiss the possibility that he really has gotten better as a hitter as evidenced by 2015.
So what does all this mean? Well it's still too early to draw strong conclusions, but there are reasons to be optimistic about Cozart's development. He's never been a high strikeout hitter, but it appears his eye has gotten even better. With that being said there are obvious reasons to expect him to regress from how well he's been hitting. He's not going to be the Reds best hitter for long, but If he can become a league average offensive shortstop that's a huge development for Cincinnati.