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.
I don’t need to tell anyone that Harold Reynolds is a controversial figure in baseball coverage. He’s become the face of the anti-sabermetric movement and has taken it upon himself to attack the new way of thinking about baseball at every turn. I’m not going to chide Reynolds for disagreeing with me and the sabermetric community. It’s fine that he disagrees and it’s fine that he plays it up for the cameras. I imagine it’s good for his career as a TV pundit. That’s fine.
But Reynolds actually represents the most serious problem in sports analysis today. Harold Reynolds makes claims without relying on evidence. Again, this isn’t Harold saying Player X is the best player in baseball because of what he sees with his eyes, I’m talking about Reynolds making claims that are factually incorrect because he simply doesn’t want to or know how to find the answer.
I’ve been trying to stay away from this, but the guys over at @HeardonMLBT pushed me into it and HR finally said something so foolish on Thursday night I couldn’t resist. In case you’re wondering, Heard on MLB Tonight tweets silly things said on air by their commentators and it’s a must follow.
But last night, Harold Reynolds blamed Starlin Castro’s terrible 2013 season on the Cubs Front Office and their “Moneyball” tendencies. Basically, HR said that the Cubs got in his head about taking pitches and working counts and it got him away from his style of play which allowed him to get 200+ hits every year.
I don’t agree with Reynolds’ anaylsis because I’m a fan of walking and a good approach at the plate, but I’ll play along. Let’s say batting average is all that matters and OBP is worthless. Here is Castro’s AVG over his career:
So we can all agree that Castro had a very good average in his first three seasons and it has fallen off in a big way in 2013. Reynolds says it’s because the Cubs want him to work counts. But Castro is walking less than ever. Even if we ignore that and say that the new approach is putting him in a bad position to hit and walk, we can go deeper.
Starlin Castro isn’t swinging less and he’s not swinging at worse pitches. In fact, he’s getting himself into almost the same counts he did in 2011. Here are the percentage of PA that got to each count.
So Harold Reynolds is not only wrong about valuing average over on base, but he’s just fundamentally wrong about the facts. Castro’s approach at the player hasn’t changed at all. The facts are right here. He’s not getting deeper into counts. He’s not swinging less. He’s not swinging at different pitches.
I don’t mind that HR is wrong about what leads to wins and losses and I don’t mind that he likes to pick on sabermetrics. But if he’s going to do both, he at least needs to avoid saying things that are so provably false. This isn’t just Harold Reynolds, it’s a lot of people. But he’s made himself the face of the movement.
Like I said, I don’t mind his old school skepticism, I mind that when presented with facts that directly contradict his point, he doesn’t acquiesce. Right here, he made a case that Castro’s approach was changed by the Cubs which has lead to his batting average decline. But if HR made any attempt to look at the facts, that is just so obviously not true.
This is just one example, but there are many cases of the same. I mean, on Thursday, he said the Phillies shouldn’t trade Papelbon for Castellanos and Smyly, but should only deal him for Prince Fielder. That’s not great analysis, but he’s charismatic and certain swaths of people like him. I used to like him because he was always excited about baseball, but now he’s complaining about every new thing in baseball. He hates walks. He hates strikeouts. He hates valuing defense in WAR when it says the Triple Crown winner isn’t the MVP, but loves it when it helps his case about OPS being misleading. He hates new thinking. And he turns everything into a chance to bash on new ideas.
So Harold Reynolds has made himself the poster-boy of terrible analysis and it’s getting worse because he’s fighting a battle against progress. The game is changing and his job is to analyze baseball, but it appears as if he doesn’t even understand the new statistics. It’s not that he disagrees, it’s that he hasn’t even done the work to learn about them. It’s lazy, it’s obnoxious, and it makes him the butt of many jokes.
Dude, Starlin Castro’s approach hasn’t changed at all. It took me less than 30 seconds to look up the evidence to prove you wrong. Maybe you need some help.
Now this cannot be thought of as an exhaustive list or a list that perfectly ranks the quality it seeks to. Rather, this is a list of Nine people who make baseball fun, without a particular guarantee about who is left off and who is ahead of who.
However, let’s also think of this list as one that doesn’t include baseball players. This is about people outside of the clubhouses and front offices. In some cases, like in most good stories, they are composite characters. What follows, is The Nine People Who Make Baseball fun.
Because, after all, that’s what baseball is. Fun.
9. Eric Karabell (ESPN Fantasy Writer, former Baseball Today podcast host)
Here’s what I like about Karabell: He’s not reactive and he loves baseball. So many people who follow and cover sports react to everything as if it dramatically reshapes the landscape of the entire sports world. Karabell says not so fast. He doesn’t accept that one bad game or outing changes a season. He makes for good listening and following because he can walk you down off the edge when things are looking bad and keep you from getting your hopes up when things are great. But on the other side of it, he is such a fan. He openly professes to watching his team when they stink and enjoys going to Fall League games and minor league parks, and once confessed to being disappointed during the postseason because he couldn’t watch ten games at once.
8. The Fan Who Isn’t Quite Up to Date
You all know this guy. The one who still sees baseball through the prism of 2008. Like all of the players he thinks are good are getting old and he’s never heard of anyone under 25. He thinks $10 million is a big salary and can’t fathom why anyone would offer a ten year contract. This person makes baseball fun because you can exploit their ignorance for entertainment. Hey guy, who is better, Jason Heyward or Jason Werth?
7. The Person Who Asks Sportswriters Stupid Questions
I’m not talking about people asking Buster Olney if he thinks the Yankees will trade A-Rod. That’s stupid, but it’s not what I mean. People, mostly on Twitter, routinely ask “experts” to answer factually based questions like “Who is starting tonight?” and “What time does the game start?” Have these people mastered Twitter, but have no concept of Google or MLB.com? How is tweeting at a sportswriter the most effective way to gather that information? These people make baseball fun because they are funny in a sad sort of way.
6. Your Mom
Hear me out. Your mom, while she doesn’t know much about baseball, tries to portray herself as someone who knows things about baseball, leading to endless enjoyment. Specifically, moms can never pronounce/remember players’ names. It has something to do with them only have a little spare time in which to pay attention and their lack of interest in most cases. This is not a comment about women in general or middle-aged women, this is about the stereotypical mom. Below are actual names my mother calls players:
Placido Polanco: “Poblano.” This is a type of chili pepper.
Rick Porcello: “Portabello.” Notice, this isn’t just here replacing a food name for a player name, this is a hybrid of the two.
Al Alburquerque: “New Mexico.”
5. Vin Scully (Dodgers Announcer)
Scully’s pipes are incredible and he’s been working the same glamorous gig for more than a half century. Hiss soothing voice and mix of baseball acumen and catalog of great stories makes him the best announcer who doesn’t work for your team. I love Mario and Rod, but Scully is the best of the best when I take my blinders off. I can’t tell you how often, after a Tigers game ends, I flip on the Dodgers feed to listen to Scully call a Clayton Kershaw start. He’s baseball’s answer to easy listening.
4. The Nine Year Old Kid in All of Us
This is a tweet from WSJ’s Jason Gay, who sums it up nicely:
The kid in all of us makes baseball fun because they enjoy the game with such incredible optimism that can’t be match today, despite my optimistic leanings. I mean seriously, tell nine year old Neil the Tigers are terrible and can’t play worth a damn and he’ll tell you a million reasons why baseball is awesome and he can’t wait to go watch and play. (Full Disclosure: After writing that sentence, it’s entirely possible I am still nine years old. But most of you aren’t.)
3. Brian Kenny and Harold Reynolds (MLB Network)
Brian Kenny is MLB Network’s sabermetric mouthpiece and Reynolds is as old school as they come, once saying that the Triple Crown “is the [MVP] trump card.” Kenny draws on analytic thinking and research while Reynolds goes with his gut. If you know something about this site, you might think I’d prefer Kenny (and I do), but they are awesome together. Really awesome. Reynolds has great charisma and knows how to push Kenny’s buttons. At one point during an MLB Tonight episode last season, I literally rolled on the floor (read: couch) laughing at this exchange.
HR: (jokes about Kenny’s use of The Shredder to analyze players)
Kenny: I’ll shred you!
HR: Yeah, yeah whatever, real baseball people don’t care about that stuff.
Kenny: They do, come to the SABR conference with me and see managers and GMs there.
HR: Do you wear your Star Wars costume to the convention?
This would be funnier if I had a clip, but trust me, it was hilarious.
2. The Person Who Runs @CantPredictBall
This and its counterpart @CanPredictBall are must follows on Twitter for their awesome and poignant baseball commentary. The premise for the account is that they post things that happen in baseball that are uncommon and strange. What’s even better is their awareness of strangeness which allows them to almost parody themselves by tweeting about things that are unpredictable in a predictable way. Here is an example of their standard tweeting:
And here is that self-awareness (from the World Series this year):
CanPredictBall does the same thing from the opposite perspective. Awesome stuff.
1. Jeff Sullivan (Fangraphs)
A few weeks ago, Sullivan retired from the Mariners blog Lookout Landing, which he created about ten years ago in favor of spending more time working for Fangraphs and working on other things. At that time, I posted his final column and remarked that if I had been born in the American northwest, I would have liked to have been Jeff Sullivan. He is quite simply, the best. The voice he achieves in his writing is among the best I’ve ever read (not just among sportswriters) and he picks up on the best things about baseball. He writes a lot of posts on pitch framing and pace and weird things that happen like Jesus Montero throwing out Mike Trout attempting to steal. If I write anymore, I think my wife will get jealous, but sufficed to say, Sullivan makes baseball fun.
Who makes baseball fun for you? Can your mom pronounce baseball names?