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The Cardinals should beware of buying-high on Zack Cozart

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A great first half makes him look interesting, but Cozart doesn’t really look all that different.

Gatorade All-Star Workout Day Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

On Tuesday, we took a long look at Aledmys Diaz’s offensive profile in 2017, and I for one came away pessimistic about his future. While the results were great in 2016, a deeper look using statcast reveals that the results were way better than should have been expected. To add to this, he’s become a lot more aggressive in 2017, swinging at a lot more pitches out of the zone. Those extra swings were largely misses, raising his strikeout rate along with halving his walk rate.

Paul DeJong has spent a lot of time at short in his absence. While he was drafted as a third-basemen, Paul made the difficult and rare move up the positional spectrum, and I’ve long been skeptical that he would be able to pull it off in the majors.

However, VEB scouting expert The Red Baron has expressed optimism regarding DeJong’s transition. There have been some mental lapses, but those are correctable. The important thing is that The Baron believes he has the tools for shortstop, and that’s good enough for me. I’m the numbers guy, and there’s no numbers available that can give me a satisfactory answer on DeJong’s defense. So I’ll trust the scout on this one.

The numbers do tell me something about DeJong’s game at the plate. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, DeJong has a very troubling profile. He strikes out a lot, which is fine on it’s own. He walks very little, which is also fine on it’s own. The problem, however, is when a player is bad at both. Such poor performance in non-contact situations means a player has to really destroy the baseball when making contact in order to make up for it.

When I wrote the previous article, he had an 1.3 BB% and a 33.8 K%, in around 70 plate appearances. Those have gone in the right direction, 3% and 28.6% respectively. Still, check this out. DeJong has 133 plate appearances. For 322 players with over 130 plate appearances, here’s the bottom ten in non-contact wOBA (unintentional walks, strikeouts, and hit by pitches):

Bottom 10 non-contact wOBA ranking

Player non-contact wOBA non-contact% on-contact wOBA on-contact% wRC+ Diff.
Player non-contact wOBA non-contact% on-contact wOBA on-contact% wRC+ Diff.
Paul DeJong .051 31.1% .538 68.9% 138 .488
Nick Hundley .058 32.9% .426 67.1% 88 .369
Javier Baez .065 29.9% .409 70.1% 84 .344
Tim Anderson .072 30.0% .357 70.0% 63 .286
Alcides Escobar .077 21.0% .279 79.0% 38 .203
Mikie Mahtook .078 25.7% .375 74.3% 81 .298
Matt Davidson .081 46.7% .556 53.3% 105 .476
Rene Rivera .086 34.5% .419 65.5% 87 .334
Caleb Joseph .091 30.1% .417 69.9% 94 .326
Jeff Mathis .091 33.8% .303 66.2% 31 .212

DeJong was second when we did this last time. His numbers were so bad that they were bound to improve, and even with that inevitable improvement, he’s dead last when looking at players with at least as many plate appearances as himself.

I also show some other categories there, including their on-contact wOBA (the on-contact portion of wOBA) as well as their wRC+ for the season. The “Diff” column takes on-contact wOBA minus non-contact wOBA, as a measure of how reliant on contact a player’s production has been. DeJong is accompanied by just one other above-average hitter in the bottom 10, Matt Davidson. This shows how tough it is to pull off a profile this extreme.

In terms of results at least, DeJong has been consistently destroying the ball when making contact. Check out the Top 10 in on-contact wOBA:

Top 10 on-contact wOBA ranking

Player non-contact wOBA non-contact% on-contact wOBA on-contact% wRC+ Diff.
Player non-contact wOBA non-contact% on-contact wOBA on-contact% wRC+ Diff.
Aaron Judge .246 46.8% .666 53.2% 197 .420
Mike Trout .290 36.7% .588 63.3% 208 .299
Freddie Freeman .289 32.3% .581 67.7% 202 .291
Miguel Sano .169 46.8% .566 53.2% 136 .397
Matt Davidson .081 46.7% .556 53.3% 105 .476
Alex Avila .250 46.7% .547 53.3% 156 .297
Paul DeJong .051 31.1% .538 68.9% 138 .488
Cody Bellinger .171 39.4% .537 60.6% 145 .366
Joey Gallo .192 53.3% .525 46.7% 111 .333
Jesus Aguilar .170 38.9% .519 61.1% 131 .350

DeJong has had the 7th best results on-contact among those with 130 plate appearances. Is it likely that he’ll really stay this good? Probably not. That would be incredible for someone with his track record up until now.

Statcast also says no. BaseballSavant.com, MLB’s portal for hosting it’s statcast data, has a stat called xwOBA. That replaces the on-contact portion of wOBA with what the production “should” have been, based on each batted ball’s Exit Velocity and Launch Angle. DeJong’s xwOBA is .045 points lower than his actual wOBA, but it still gives him an above-average overall expectation.

Still, players go on hot streaks, and I’m not banking on DeJong staying above-average. We’ve seen this before, with Randal Grichuk. There’s variance when it comes to results on-contact. When a player’s game is completely reliant on results on-contact, they’re bound to have some long streaks, hot and cold. DeJong has the highest difference in baseball between his on-contact and non-contact wOBA. Grichuk did the same in 2015

At the least, the Cardinals have to look outside the organization to see if there’s anything out there that makes sense. Maybe they come up empty, but things are too fragile at short to not at least check what the market is offering.

The most enticing option at short isn’t playing there right now: Manny Machado of the Orioles. His injury history would make you want to keep him at third, but hey, he can play there for a stretch run at least. Although they’re just 42-46, and have just 2.8% chance at reaching the ALDS according to Fangraph’s playoff odds, the Orioles are at least still considering not selling.

So we’ll hold off on talking Machado for now. One player that almost certainly will be moved: Zack Cozart of the Reds. There’s at least some chance he’s not traded, as there is some talk of an extension, but extensions this late seem to be getting rarer and rarer.

There’s one potential roadblock in that the trade would be in-division, and some teams are weird about that sort of thing. The Cardinals and Reds both rate around the middle in terms of trading in-division in this study, so at least there’s some reason to believe they could at least stand each other enough to consider a trade. However, MLB Trade Rumor’s Transaction Tracker tells us the last instance of the Cardinals and Reds trading with each other is 2006, when the Cardinals acquired Timo Perez for cash.

That aside, Cozart could be an upgrade. He’s always been a great defender at short. That alone gives him a lot of margin for error with the bat. Cozart has taken the Yadier Molina career path: He had plenty of years of great defense holding up weak hitting. Now he’s decided to hit too. He hit for a 105 wRC+ in 2015, followed by a 91 wRC+ in 2016, more than enough offense to make him a valuable player with great defense at short.

And it is great defense. He’s averaged 11.3 runs better than the average shortstop per 150 games worth of innings over his career. He’s kept that pace going the last three years. That along with the positional adjustment associated with playing the toughest non-battery position gives Cozart a strong defensive profile that doesn’t need to hit well to be valuable.

Someone didn’t give him the memo though, because he’s in the middle of a career year. Among 166 qualified players, Cozart’s 146 wRC+is ranked 18th. Ditto for his 2.9 WAR. His walks, power, and average are all up, while maintaining his strikeout rate. That’s pretty impressive, but a closer look reveals the walks look like the only real improvement.

Let’s look at Cozart’s contact quality, broken down into Statcast’s six qualities of contact: Barrels (the very best batted balls), Solid Contact (a notch below Barrels, and about half as valuable), Flares and Burners (a combination of high-velocity grounders and low velocity-high angled flies (or texas leaguers or bloopers), Topped (low angled grounders), Under (pop flys and medium velocity fly balls), and Weak contact (any batted ball under 60 MPH). Here’s Cozarts’ rates at each, along with the league average rate, and the avearge wOBA of each:

Zack Cozart contact quality breakdown

Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Topped% Under% Weak%
Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Topped% Under% Weak%
Avg wOBA 1.433 .692 .630 .206 .095 .046
Lg Avg 6.7% 5.6% 24.6% 33.0% 24.5% 5.7%
2015 Cozart 3.0% 5.0% 24.3% 33.7% 27.7% 6.4%
2016 Cozart 2.6% 5.0% 23.3% 29.7% 33.1% 6.4%
2017 Cozart 1.9% 3.5% 27.4% 26.4% 32.4% 8.5%

This is really underwhelming. Aledmys Diaz has hit barrels at a higher rate than Cozart, which is really saying something. xwOBA tells the same story. Of 214 players with more than 200 at bats, Cozart has the fourth biggest negative difference (.076 points). League average wOBA this year among non-pitchers is .326, and Cozart has an xwOBA of .327. Add-in that Cozart plays in a higher than averarge run environment, and Statcast thinks Cozart should actually be having a below average year at the plate.

At home, Cozart’s Solid Contact batted balls had an average wOBA (1.417) a full .815 points higher than their average xwOBA (.602). That led to some investigating. For reference, here is Radial Chart from BaseballSavant.com, showing the six qualities of contact:

The protractor-shaped image above is used to represent all batted balls, by Launch Angle and Velocity. The six shaded regions are the six regions of contact. Each dot is one of Cozart’s batted balls in 2017, situated by Exit Velocity and Launch Angle. As I mentioned earlier, Barrels are the best batted balls. Basically homers, doubles off the wall, really hard-hit line drives, and warning track drives. Solid Contact is basically a thin border around barrels, and there’s more variance in those. They can be homers as well, but also doubles, and a lot more deep outs than barrels.

Anyway, this isn’t park adjusted. It makes sense that at the Great American Ballpark, Solid Contact might mean a homer more often. Indeed, the average wOBA on Solid Contact at the Great American Ballpark from 2015-2017 (the Statcast Era) is .199 higher than it’s xwOBA. For Right-handed hitters (like Cozart), it’s .225.

By contrast, at Busch the League average wOBA on Solid Contact is .100 points lower than it’s xwOBA. It drops to .127 less for righties.

That advantage doesn’t explain all of his over-performance though. He over-performed his xwOBA on Solid Contact on the road to the tune of .140 points. On Flares and Burners, he had an expected batting average of .684. However, he’s had an actual batting average of .810 on those batted balls. A lot of Cozart’s breakout can be attributed to good ole fashioned good luck on balls in play, along with being a fly ball hitter in a fly ball friendly park.

Still though, slightly below-average production at the plate isn’t bad when it’s coming from someone with Cozart’s glove. The projections see a .322 wOBA going forward, pretty close to statcast’s xwOBA of .327. That comes out to a 94 wRC+ when playing half of one’s games at a homer-friendly park. Over a full-season (600 plate appearances) that line plus his defense comes out to 2.7 WAR. At the deadline, it’s almost a win (0.9 WAR).

Diaz is projected right at 2 WAR over a full season, or 23 of a win at the deadline. That’s based on him bouncing back to a 98 wRC+ going forward, much better than the 79 he had for the year when he was demoted. Cozart could be a very marginal upgrade over Diaz or a big one, depending on how Diaz bounces back.

Working with that projection, $9M as the price of a win in last year’s free agent market, and doubling that for the in-season premium, here’s how Cozart’s value shakes out:

Zack Cozart trade value calculation

Zach Cozart 2017
Zach Cozart 2017
Price of WAR $18.0
Projected WAR 0.9
Projected Value $15.7
Salary $1.8
Projected Surplus Value $13.9

Relatively speaking, this is cheap value for an in-season trade. Looking at my aggregate top prospects list, the two Cardinal prospects that come closest to his value are Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson (both $12.3M). However, these are based on prospect lists that came out before the year started, and Flaherty has had an impressive campaign thus far. Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra are also both close ($14.4M). While I came away very skeptical of Sierra’s results in the majors thus far, that doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s a nice prospect to have. While it’s a fair deal, I don’t think the shortstop situation is bad enough to part with either of those two for a rental that isn’t a huge upgrade.

Hudson though, I could live with dealing, if the Cards decided to go for it in 2017. This isn’t a season-changing move, but if they already made some bigger win-now move, then I get shoring up the defense.

I’m not even sure if I would deal DeJong for Cozart. I may not think the odds are on his side to be a starter, but he could easily be a nice utility guy a bench bat for a few years making the league minimum. Those players have value too. I’m close but don’t like the idea of parting with DeJong for Cozart, so that’s probably a decent sign that it’s about a fair trade. Other fans that have a higher opinion of DeJong probably see that as an over-pay.

Whether that’s enough to get it done depends on the rest of the shortstop market. For one, we’ll have to see if Manny Machado really isn’t available. If the Blue Jays fall out of the race in the next couple weeks, maybe they try to move Troy Tulowitzki’s contract.

The demand isn’t obvious either. The Nationals say they’re not planning on acquiring a shortstop as Trea Turner should be back before the beginning of September. If they decide to make some win-now moves, the Twins, Brewers, or Royals could all be in the market for a shortstop.

Whatever the situation, there’s no reason to overpay here. This isn’t a necessary move. It would be nice to pick up Cozart for cheap, if his market doesn’t materialize. Otherwise, Cozart is a nice step up from what we have, but probably not worth the price.