Pittsburgh Pirates Free Agent Target: Zack Cozart
Free Agency has started and players are able to sign with others. It’s the first step towards the start of the 2018 season. The Pirates are coming off back-to-back years in which they have played below .500 ball, and need a bolster to the roster. Could Zack Cozart be an answer?
The shortstop position is an area where the Pirates can quietly improve upon. The incumbent starter Jordy Mercer is solid, and you know what you’ll receive from him, which is a one win player. The free agent class isn’t deep with shortstops, and the only contending teams that could use a clear upgrade at short are the Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks, and perhaps the Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies, but the latter two have two young shortstops that they might be comfortable with. That leaves the market for Zack Cozart, the best free agent shortstop.
The Pittsburgh Pirates may make sense as a team to be in play for Cozart. Obviously, there is a lot of variable at play, including his contract demands. However, it is relatively surprising, the Cincinnati Reds did not offer him a qualifying offer for some reason. The last part of that is why the Pirates might be more tempted to after Cozart, though even if he was given a qualifying offer, the Pirates first round pick is protected since it is in the top 10.
A bulk of Cozart’s worth in the past has been because of his defense, having a career UZR/150 of 10.6 and 56 runs saved. Last season, Cozart only saved two runs and posted a UZR/150 of 6.2. He is 32 years old, so the decline in defense will come. But the thing that is more intriguing than the glove, which would be an upgrade over Mercer’s, but it’s the bat that will really determine his value over the length of a contract, which Jim Duquette says three years and $40 million should be the starting point.
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From his debut in 2011 through the end of the 2016 season, Cozart hit just .246/.289/.385 with a .293 wOBA and 80 wRC+ in 2521 plate appearances. His defense led to Cozart being a 2.36 WAR/600 plate appearances player. Though getting him to 600 plate appearances has been a challenge, as he had Tommy John in 2011 after a collision with Nate McLouth, torn ligaments in his knee after slipping on a bag in 2015, knee soreness in 2016, and straining both the right and left quad in 2017. His value, despite poor offense results, should be high enough for the Pirates to be interested, but now that he might have a better offensive profile, the interest really needs to be there.
Cozart got off to his best start in 2015, the year he slipped on the bag, and hit .258/.310/.459 in 214 plate appearances. He posted an ISO (slugging average) of .201, a wOBA of .328, and a wRC+ of 106. He followed it up by hitting .252/.308/.425 with a .312 wOBA and 91 wRC+. Despite the below league average bat, Cozart posted a 2.5 fWAR, and for reference, Jordy Mercer had a career-high 2.0 fWAR in 2014. Then 2017 happened, where Cozart was an offensive weapon for the Reds. He slashed .297/.385/.548 with a .392 wOBA and 141 wRC+ in 507 plate appearances, making him the 17th best hitter among qualifiers.
Before looking at Cozart’s batted ball profile, the key for Cozart’s difference from 2011-16 and his 2017 are simple. Cozart increased his walk rate from 5.3 percent to 12.2 percent (he has increased his walk rate in 2015, 2016, and 2017). One of the root causes of this increase in walk rate was swinging less at pitches out of the zone, cutting his o-zone swing percentage from 29.6 percent to 25.5 percent, showing more patience, as he also cut his inside the zone swing percentage from 62.8 percent to 57.7 percent.
The batted ball data is where Cozart becomes more interesting. He had a 44 percent groundball rate from 2011-16, and in 2017 he posted a 38.2 percent rate. This is something Cozart has actually been doing since 2015, hitting the ball on the ground 38.6 percent and 39.4 percent in 2015 and 2016 respectively. By hitting fewer groundballs, Cozart has given himself a better chance of success. It’s not just fewer groundballs, it’s hitting the ball harder, something that Cozart has done and improved upon over the last three seasons.
Hard hit rate is defined as balls hit 95+ miles per hour because 95 is where the exit velocity actually tends to matter. The definition of a barrel is “classification is assigned to batted-ball events whose comparable hit types (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) have led to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage since Statcast was implemented Major League wide in 2015.” With Cozart increasing his barrels per both batted ball event (BBE) and plate appearance, we can see how he was able to, in terms of batted balls, produce the slash line he did in 2017.
His estimated wOBA based on batted balls (xwOBA) is low, and the difference between his xwOBA and his wOBA on batted balls is extremely high, there is cause for concern in how much regression he actually will have. The league average xwOBA in 2017 was .314, so Cozart is still above average even if he just performed to his xwOBA and didn’t overperform by .067. Any team that will look to sign Cozart, will bet on him being able to barrel the ball more like he did in 2017 compared to 2016, which I think he can be based on a new swing approach and his plate discipline.
Despite this batted ball profile of Cozart and his new plate discipline, if it is, in fact, new and not just random variation, he will regress, it’s just a question of how much. STEAMER, a projection system, has a projection of .256/.326/.426 with a .322 wOBA and 98 wRC+, which is around a league average bat, and is better than Mercer. However, I think he can contribute more than that and be more than average, just not what he was this past season.
This is Cozart in 2016, where he was nine percent below average. Notice how his hands start high up around his head and he twirls them, almost in a circle motion, as he starts his swings. He uses a leg kick to generate his power, something he still does. But this is 2017, where Cozart has his hands in a different location and he has no loop in his swing. I believe this adjustment allows Cozart to be on time more consistently, which allows him to barrel the ball more.
It also looks as if he has more weight on his back leg, generating power forward, though that is not as obvious as the change he made with his hands. This is where the scouting and analytics merge together. If his ability to barrel the ball more consistently is as a result of this adjustment, and not just variation (which I believe the change is a root cause for this improvement), the likely hood he’ll still be above average is greater (perhaps he’s actually a projected 5-10 percent better than average).
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The Pirates combine the contract of the player with the age, injury history, and projected performance to create an “asset value.” Cozart is going to be in his age 32 seasons, and he has not produced 600 plate appearances since 2013, so keeping him on the field might be a challenge. The Pirates might hesitate on that, as his “asset value” might be on the low-end. However, with just a league average bat, he would still provide almost two wins more than Mercer will.
Certainly, his defense will decline, but with the lack of middle infielders and corner infielders in the system, he can always slide over to second or third if the length of the deal necessitates that. Overall Cozart would be a beneficial signing for the 2018 and 2019 Pirates, and with no teams really needing a shortstop and no qualifying offer attached, this would be the perfect time for the Pirates to sign the obvious and needed upgrade in free agency.
*Numbers from FanGraphs and baseball savant