Does Zack Cozart’s elite defense make up for his poor offense?


Zack Cozart is undoubtedly one of the most heavily criticized players on the Cincinnati Reds. Outside of the Atlanta Braves’ Andrelton Simmons, he may be the best defensive shortstop in baseball, but his offense is lackluster at best. This raises an interesting question: does Cozart’s skills with the glove outweigh his meager offensive production?

Let’s start with Cozart’s defensive prowess. Last season, his defense went a long way in contributing to the Reds being the top defensive team in baseball in terms of fewest errors committed and highest fielding percentage. Cozart committed only 10 errors (third fewest among all qualified shortstops), had 19 defensive runs saved (second highest among shortstops) and an ultimate zone rating of 12.1 (third).

In terms of DRS and UZR, two useful metrics in measuring defensive performance, there aren’t a lot of shortstops who can put up those kinds of numbers. Only four shortstops in the majors had a UZR of over 7.5 and only three had a DRS of more than 10. Clearly, the value Cozart brings with the glove is not easy to find. Between Cozart and perennial Gold Glove candidate Brandon Phillips, not a lot of balls get through the center of the infield, which saves a lot of runs from scoring.

Conversely, Cozart doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table from an offensive perspective. In 2014, he hit .221/.268/.300 with an ugly OPS+ of 61 to go with four home runs and 38 runs batted in. It was his worst offensive season, but his career numbers aren’t a whole lot better (.243/.281/.365). Cozart has never hit for much power, but saw a dramatic drop-off in his slugging numbers last season, going from 52 and 45 extra base hits in 2012 and 2013, respectively, to a measly 27 last season.

With a player who doesn’t hit for much power, the hope is that they can at least get on base at a good rate, but unfortunately, Cozart doesn’t do that either. Cozart has .281 OBP for his career and has never walked more than 31 times in a season despite having at least 543 plate appearances in each of his three full seasons.

So, does his defense make up for his offense? The answer really depends on how the players around him perform. Last season, the Reds offense was abysmal at times, and for a team that struggled to score runs, Cozart’s lack of production with the bat hurt them. Since the Reds were already elite defensively and had solid starting pitching, they probably could’ve afforded the loss on defense for the addition of a better bat. Of course, Bryan Price didn’t have a better bat available (sorry, Ramon Santiago), so he didn’t have much of a choice other than penciling Cozart in the eighth spot of the lineup everyday.

This season, however, might be different. Walt Jocketty has already gone on record saying that Cozart must hit better if he wants to remain the starting shortstop, as the Reds now have Eugenio Suarez to challenge him. While Suarez isn’t even close to Cozart’s level with the glove, he has consistently hit well throughout his career.

His numbers last season with the Detroit Tigers don’t really jump out, but they’re still better than what Cozart was able to put up (.242/.316/.336, 82 OPS+, 4 HR, 23 RBI). For his minor league career, the 23-year-old batted .278/.362/.415 with 33 home runs over six seasons. Even if Suarez’s solid batting average doesn’t carry over to the majors, he still has an advantage over Cozart offensively in that he can get on base at much a better rate. Defensively, Suarez made 10 errors with -5 DRS and a -0.1 UZR last season with Detroit and had an additional nine errors in the minor leagues.

If Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Brandon Phillips remain healthy while Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco build on the success they had last year, the Reds will be able to more easily afford having Cozart in the lineup daily. If injuries haunt them and the lineup struggles to score again in 2015, Suarez could very well become the starting shortstop and Cozart could find himself on the bench as a late-inning defensive replacement.