If you’re familiar at all with the program MLB Now, you know that it usually includes a segment in which Brian Kenny and Harold Reynolds argue about Dusty Baker. Sometimes it’s about how he uses his 9th inning reliever, Aroldis Chapman. Sometimes it’s about who should hit 4th in the Reds lineup. Thursday, it was about Zack Cozart and his time in the number two spot in the batting order.
During this edition, Eric Byrnes was filling in for Kenny, but he did a nice job making the point Kenny would have made. Zack Cozart cannot hit second. Reynolds provided three arguments for why he should hit second, including that he wants to hit his middle infielders at the top of the order to get them into the game early, Cozart can bunt, and that Cozart would be unsuccessful hitting anywhere else. I would like to address HR’s arguments and then make a very clear case of my own as to why Zack Cozart cannot hit second for the Reds.
Responding To Reynolds
Reynolds “next-level” argument about getting Cozart an at bat so that he is more ready in the field is actually the most persuasive because I can’t refute it with evidence. There might be something to this, but Cozart is a very good defensive player and I have a hard time believing that he isn’t prepared to make plays regardless of when his first at bat comes (plus Byrnes wanted to put the 2B there, so it seems like that should offset). I suppose we could do an analysis about the distribution of errors depending on lineup order, but I’m not going to bother because I think the rest of the argument is strong enough not to sweat it.
Second, HR wants Cozart there because he can bunt, which moves Choo over for Votto, so that Votto can drive him in. This is a silly argument. First of all, despite Choo’s great OBP, he’s still only on base 40% of the time and sometimes those hits are doubles and homers, so he’s on first even less often. Second, some of those cases will be with two outs and the sacrifice bunt will not be on the table. Third, if Choo gets on first with no outs, there is a higher chance you will score if you don’t bunt than if you move the runner over with one out. Finally, Zack Cozart is a below average bunter in his career. He’s only succeeded on 67% of sac bunt attempts, when MLB average is 69%.
Basically, there is a small subset of opportunities for Cozart to bunt Choo over, bunting rarely helps the offense score, and Cozart isn’t even great at it. That doesn’t sound like reason enough to bat him second when there are serious downsides.
His third argument is that Cozart wouldn’t succeed at the bottom of the order. That’s silly. Hitters do better when they hit in front of the pitcher. I don’t have complete data, but in 2012 NL 8th hitters had higher OBPs than AL 8th hitters because they hit in front of the pitcher. It would probably help Cozart, not hurt him. Second, you shouldn’t put a bad batter in the 2nd spot because he’d be worse in the 8 spot. That’s more bad at bats in more critical situations. That’s illogical in every way.
Why Cozart Can’t Hit Second
To start, Cozart is a below average hitter (.230/.261/.358, 64 wRC+ in 2013) this year and has been for his entire career. This isn’t a slump he has to work out of, it’s who he is as a hitter. He’s not the worst hitting shortstop in the league this season, but he’s not a good hitter overall. He’s got a great glove and runs the bases well and I have no problem with him hitting 8th and playing short for the Reds. He’s a valuable player if used correctly.
But not in the 2nd spot in the order.
First of all, many would argue the 2nd hitter should be your best hitter because the 2nd hitter will get the most at bats during a season except for the leadoff hitter and will bat with men on base more often than the leadoff hitter. This gets you the most at bats you can while not losing the opportunity to drive in runs by hitting 1st. Some say your fourth hitter should be your best, some say second, it doesn’t really matter. Your best hitters should hit 1-5. I really don’t care about the order very much, but you should bat your best guys up front because they will bat more often during the whole season and are more likely to come up in each individual game, therefore, maximizing the chances that they can provide a key hit that swings the outcome of the most games.
You also want good hitters in front of other good hitters. I don’t really care if Votto hits second, third, or fourth, but I do care that he bats with runners on base because he is an elite hitter and should be given the opportunity to hit with the bases occupied. Cozart makes the most outs of any regular Reds hitter, but he hits in front of the guy who makes the fewest.
That’s madness. You want guys on base for your best hitters and Cozart is the worst on the team at that. You’re giving Votto, Phillips, and Bruce fewer chances to drive in runs by putting a bad hitter second. There is no getting around that.
To win baseball games, you need to score more runs than the other team and the offense’s job is to maximize their run scoring output. To do that, they have to get on base and not make outs. Cozart makes the most outs of anyone on the Reds, so is therefore not on base for the guys who make the fewest outs. We can argue about who should hit 2nd, 3rd, and 4th based on who slugs what and who strikes out the least, but there is no question that you cannot have a terrible hitter in the middle of your offensive attack.
In 2012, the Reds 2nd spot came to the plate 108 more times than their 8th spot. Over the course of an entire season, you can bring Cozart to the plate 100 fewer times if you move him down. Let’s say he’s a .280 OBP guy. You’re talking about something like 80 fewer outs over a whole season. That’s one fewer out every other game. That can be the difference between winning and losing in some cases.
Even if you want someone who can bunt in the 2nd spot and think sacrifice bunting is great, surely you can appreciate that being able to bunt (which Cozart isn’t great at) doesn’t make up for how many outs you can save by moving Cozart down and replacing him with someone who makes fewer outs, and maybe even hits for extra bases. Even if you want to be able to bunt in the 2nd spot, no one on the Reds is significantly worse than Cozart at it that is makes up for the other outs he makes.
So allow me to summarize. Zack Cozart is the Reds worst hitter. This is clear. He’s costing the Reds scoring opportunities by making more outs than anyone else. The Reds can benefit from moving him into the 8th spot to get him fewer at bats and getting more at bats for their better hitters. Sacrifice bunts cost runs, and even if you choose not to believe that, Cozart isn’t great at it, so the small number of chances he gets to bunt combined with his success rate at it can be easily mimicked by anyone else.
Zack Cozart hits second because baseball tradition says you hit a contact hitter with who can bunt and run second. But that is not the best way to structure a lineup. It’s just wrong. The value in those skills is not best utilized in the 2nd spot. The two spot is for good hitters who extend innings and get on base. Moving runners over by bunting and giving yourself up is not a valuable skill if you cannot also get on base.
Cozart is a good player overall, but not a very good hitter. There is a place for a player like that in the major leagues, but he can’t hit second. Don’t accept conventional wisdom because it’s always been that way. There is no logical reason to hit Cozart second except that’s what we’ve always done. “What we’ve always done” is not a good reason to do something. If you deconstruct how runs are scored, you recognize that you need players who get on base to get on base ahead of other good hitters. If you put a bad hitter in that mix, you’re killing rallies plain and simple.
Zack Cozart cannot hit second and you shouldn’t accept the reasons given by Baker and Reynolds because they don’t make sense. Consider it for yourself. Would you rather get Choo to second with one out, or Votto batting with Choo on first and no outs. Think about Cozart coming to the plate with the game in the balance and making an out, leaving Votto on deck.
This is a problem all across MLB and it’s one of the easiest things to fix. Just start thinking differently.