Why Zack Cozart Will Succeed (And Why Maybe He Won’t)

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10: Zack Cozart
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 10: Zack Cozart /

When Zack Cozart signed with the LA Angels earlier this winter, the vast majority of Halo Nation rose up and applauded. For the Angels to sign Shohei Ohtani, then get a third baseman who was Gold Glove-caliber defender who also hits like a jackhammer was like finding a hundred dollar bill inside an old jacket, only to unfold it and find another fifty. Nearly every Angel fan was thrilled by the signing. I was not one of them.

Cozart did have a spectacular 2017, swinging to a tune of .297/.385/.548 — and that was precisely what bothered me. The LA Angels just signed a guy who, before 2017, had a career slugging percentage under .400 and a career on-base percentage under .300, and we’re supposed to just buy that he suddenly pounds the ball like Carlos Correa? I didn’t want to take that at face value, but there’s clearly something going on with Zack Cozart’s bat. Over the past three years, Cozart has somehow transformed himself from your typical good-field, no-hit spare part into a legitimate middle-of-the-lineup threat and a true All-Star. I had to take a closer look.

First thing’s first: He hits for power now. It’s not that Cozart is a small man — he’s a 6 feet tall, 204-pound professional athlete, yet in 2014, Cozart hit just 4 homers. In 2017 he hit 24. In his first five seasons, Cozart hit a combined 40 homers; he’s popped 40 in his last two. In the current high-octane offensive environment, it’s not shocking to see someone hit a few more homers, but Cozart’s improvement is beyond extreme, especially for someone who didn’t start improving until he was nearly 30.

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There are some clear mechanical adjustments he’s made to his swing. When he first came into the league, Cozart would hold his bat back high, with his hands up and far from his body. “There was a lot of times last year, and in the past, where I was just wondering where my hands were,” he said in a 2015 interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I remember times last year where I almost didn’t see the pitch because I was worried about where my hands are, if I’m on time, all these things were compounding and making it tough to hit and be mentally free.”

After a terrible 2014, he made some changes. He began resting the bat on his shoulders, which forced him to keep his hands closer to his body and kept his swing from getting too long. Because he’s not reaching like he used to, his top hand is more involved is swing, allowing him to swing through the ball instead of simply at it. He still has the big weight shift he’s always had, but the tighter swing allows him to be more consistent with his mechanics.

A second change to his mechanics has been the flattening out of his swing. Early in his career, Cozart swing with a noticeable uppercut, not unusual in this day and age when everyone’s swinging for the fences. In 2017, that changed. Inspired not by a big league batting coach but by a YouTube instructional video from some otherwise unknown outfit called Ultimate Baseball Training comparing a level swing to “putting a pizza in an oven,” Cozart flattened out his own swing. While the average big leaguer’s launch angle is around 12.6 degrees, Cozart’s is 12.1 degrees. Cozart credits teammate (and awesome hitter) Joey Votto with inspiring him. “If you come watch Joey hit in the cage… he’s hitting hard line drives to the back of the net — low, hard line drives.”

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The irony is that, in flattening out his swing, Cozart has become an extreme flyball hitter. While Cozart isn’t a little guy, the ball doesn’t exactly jump off his bat; even during his best season, his swing produces batted ball exit velocities of around 85.3 MPH, lower than the big league average of 87.7 MPH. Cozart compensates by getting his top hand more involved in his swing, he’s putting more backspin on the ball than at any other time in his career. More backspins means more hang time, and that means more line drives and home runs. In 2014, Cozart hit the ball on the ground 56% of the time. This past season, among 144 full season big league qualifiers, Cozart was 35th in ground ball percentage (just behind some dude named Mike Trout), hitting the ball on the ground just 38.7% of the time. That means that 61.3% of the time, he’s driving the ball, either by flyball or line drive, and that’s when good things happen.

Cozart’s approach at the plate has also changed. To generate any real power, Cozart has to pull the ball — and that’s exactly what he’s learned to do. Taking a look at Cozart’s spray chart for batted balls via Fangraphs.com, we can see that before 2015, Cozart’s fly ball distribution was fairly even across all fields while the majority of hard-hit balls, including all of his homers, were to left field, fairly normal for a right-handed hitter. What’s unusual is that since 2015, his spray chart moves noticeably to the left. It’s not just the flyballs, either. Over his career, Cozart routinely poked about 22% of batted balls to the right side; in 2017, that was down to 16.5%. The results speak to the obvious: he’s looking to pull the ball every time up. He’s no longer satisfied with just making contact; he wants to make hard contact.

And then there’s the most important part of his adjustment, another something he’s gleaned from playing with Votto. “I’m not up there just trying to see first pitch and hit it because (it’s a strike),” said Cozart in a mid-season Cincy Enquierer interview.

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Over the past three seasons, his walk rate has gone from 6.5% in 2015 to 7.3% in 2016. In 2017, Cozart’s walk rate was a sterling 12.2%, and was 16th in all of baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance. “I’m looking for a certain spot, if they throw it there, I may swing at it. If not, if they make good pitches, I tip my cap to them. I take it from there. I’m in no rush to get the at-bat over with.” By taking control of the strike zone and making pitchers throw more strikes, Cozart earns more hittable pitches. He’s getting better swings on the ball, and has learned to drive the ball consistently.

All the research goes a long way towards making me feel better about the Cozart signing, but there are some factors to think about. First, and most obviously, is that Cozart’s 2017 performance is hilariously out of line with his previous performance, and that makes him a prime candidate for regression. It’s possible he’s moved into the Justin Turner/Daniel Murphy Hit King phase of his career, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Despite all of his mechanical and mental improvements at the plate, Cozart’s batted ball metrics didn’t speak to a wholly different hitter, just a marginally better one, and it could very well be that 2017 was just a season where all the hits were falling for him.

Second, it’s important to note that the Great American Ballpark, Cozart’s home park for the past few seasons, is identified by ESPN as the best park for right-handed power in the major leagues (yeah, even better than Coors!). While Cozart doesn’t have a pronounced home/road split, there’s bound to be an impact going from playing half his games in a bandbox like GAB to playing half his games at Angel Stadium, perhaps the best pitchers park in the American League. Between regression and a more difficult hitting environment, it’s very likely that Cozart’s offense will look a lot more like previous seasons than 2017.

Finally, Cozart’s hasn’t played a single inning of any position other than shortstop in his major league career (and just 11 appearances at second base in the low minors and fall league). Cozart’s a tremendous shortstop whose range and glove are on par with that of Andrelton Simmons, and there’s little doubt that those skills will translate at third base. However, unlike Simmons, Cozart doesn’t have a bazooka throwing arm, and next season he’ll be required to routinely make the longer throw from across the diamond. Making the defensive adjustment while also adjusting to a new league’s worth of pitchers on a new team, while being expected to repeat his career offensive season, would be a challenge for any player.

All those caveats aside, it does seem clear that Cozart is going to be an improvement at third base, if only because the bar for the Angels is so low. Between Yunel Escobar’s terrible defense and Luis Valbuena’s terrible everything last season, the Angels were kneecapped by the worst third base production in the American League. Consider this: the Angels were also last in the majors at second base and DH (so if you think pitching is the team’s biggest problem, you’re mistaken), and the combination of those three dead spots in the lineup easily contributed -8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement). If Cozart and new additions Ian Kinsler and Shohei Ohtani can turn that -8 into just a big fat zero and everything else stayed equal, the Angels are an 88-win team playing in the Wild Card round instead of 80-82 and being wondering what went wrong.

Next: Is Jim Johnson the next Angels Closer?

So is Zack Cozart a good addition to the Angels? Yes, almost definitely. The defensive difference between Cozart and last season’s bench mob is the difference between night and day, and will be an especially big boon to lefty curveballers Andrew Heaney and Tyler Skaggs. If Cozart can also deliver offensively at a level anywhere close to what he did last season, the Angels are looking at a very valuable player indeed. Expectations are too high, because it’s winter and it’s fun to get excited about the new guy, but the Angels seem to finally have found a real contributor at third base.