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The evolution of Zack Cozart

Perhaps his offensive breakout is following a familiar path.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s rare in Major League Baseball to watch slow, gradual development of a player over an extended period of time. Normally, that kind of skill-honing happens in the minors, or happens not at all. Every now and then, however, we get to watch a player struggle perhaps longer than we’d all like before finally, finally turning a corner on one of his previous deficiencies.

Nine times out of ten, that’s because those players bring something else monumental to the game, and it’s usually a stellar defensive calling card. Glove-first guys have long carved out niches on MLB rosters despite swinging awful bats, usually at the all-important up the middle positions of catcher, centerfielder, or shortstop.

One particular shortstop we’ve seen a lot of lately certainly fits that mold. His glove got him to the big leagues in his mid 20’s in 2011 despite so-so minor league offensive numbers, and he jumped right into an everyday role despite not really showing up on any Top 100 prospect lists. That was fine, however, since his excellent defense was enough to make him a valuable part of the overall roster. Through the 2014 season, his numbers looked like this:

Shortstop Guy 1810 393 26 8 .242 .310 .359 .669 8.1 5.1

Good. Valuable, even, especially since that production coincided with his cheapest years of team control. But after the 2014 season, something began to click offensively, and since that point in time he's been a completely different hitter at the plate. Not just an OK one, either, but a player you could legitimately call above-average at the plate:

PA/162 H/162 HR/162 SB/162 AVG OBP SLG OPS
Shortstop Guy 643 154 18 7 .266 .329 .443 .772

That's a pretty defined improvement across the board, with greater success at hitting for average as well as a definitive increase in hitting for power. That's something that you don't often find from a middle infielder who's now in his 30's, especially from one who spent his first few years in the majors hitting nothing like that.

A somewhat intriguing part about this particular player, however, is that it's not Zack Cozart that we're talking about. It's San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, who returned to the lineup to sock a few doubles against the Cincinnati Reds over the weekend and has won Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger Award, a pair of World Series rings, and owns an All Star Game appearance since breaking into the bigs back in 2011. And it's the parallels between he and Cozart that keep popping up more and more often as Cincinnati's shortstop continues to rake in this 2017 season.

For quick comparison's sake, here's the two players' stats stacked side by side:

Brandon Crawford (2011-2014) 1810 393 26 8 .242 .310 .359 .669 8.1 5.1
Zack Cozart (2011-2014) 1799 406 33 11 .243 .281 .365 .646 7.4 6.5

PA/162 H/162 HR/162 SB/162 AVG OBP SLG OPS
Brandon Crawford (2015-present) 643 154 18 7 .266 .329 .443 .772
Zack Cozart (2015-present) 676 162 23 8 .266 .328 .457 .785

Huh. Undoubtedly, there's a lot of noise in here, a lot of which is certainly worth looking into.

The obvious first issue of note is the switch from totals in the 2011-2014 comparison to per 162 game rates for the second, which was done largely because of the devastating knee injury suffered by Cozart in 2015 that cost him half that year (and helped shut him down early in 2016). That kind of time on the sidelines isn't in Crawford's numbers and also shrinks Cozart's into potential small-sample-size territory, but the entire point of this article was to see if something like Cozart's late-career surge was something sustainable beyond just small sample noise at all.

The second concern surrounds their respective home stadiums, since playing half one's games in Great American Ball Park generally produces a much different hitting profile than spending half one's games in AT&T Park. In other words, has Cozart feasted on great home splits to help support his overall numbers while Crawford has been largely victimized by so much time in a pitcher's park? Interestingly enough, that doesn't appear to be the case, as Cozart's career home OPS (.696) isn't drastically different than his road one (.685), and Cozart has actually hit more homers away from GABP in his career (32) than at home (29). Crawford's career OPS marks (.717 away, .707 home) are also pretty in-line with each other, and while he's certainly swatted more homers away from AT&T (41 away vs. just 20 at home), just last year he slugged .439 in his home park against .422 on the road.

This isn't an attempt to suggest that the two players are mirror images of each other in their means, of course. That's a argument that would be rife with many flaws, considering they pull the ball at significantly different rates, hit the ball the other way at different rates, too, and have significantly different patterns at the pitches at which they swing, both in the zone and out of it. The ends, however, do look strikingly similar, which is the kind of bottom-line development of which the Reds have certainly taken notice.

When Crawford signed his six year, $75 million extension back in the fall of 2015, he had a pair of years of team control still left. That would've made him in his walk year this year, which is exactly where Cozart currently finds himself. Crawford's got age on his side a bit, at 30 and change being some 15 months younger than Cozart at the moment, and he's got 4 years and $60.8 million left on his contract. While the Reds don't seem eager at all to approach Cozart with an extension of any kind - much less one of that ilk - a closer look at how the two players have performed similarly of late might well give some insight into the kind of value Cozart might have on the trade market, which is something the Reds have absolutely explored over the past year. If anything, the recent indications are that what Cincinnati has on the block isn't terribly different than an All Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove winning peer who has made himself a household name across the league.