Over the past few days something very odd has happened in baseball. Somehow, some way, Zack Cozart has become the active fWAR leader. Okay, this may not be as big a surprise this afternoon as it may have been when you first heard about this, but it is still pretty crazy, right? Or maybe you saw him sneaking up the leaderboards over the past few days or weeks. Either way, it has happened. He’s now number one amongst the active players, and perhaps he’ll soon overtake Trout for first amongst all players.
In terms of fantasy, WAR doesn’t carry much weight, of course. Especially for a guy like Cozart who generates a solid chunk of his value through defensive excellence. Even still, Cozart is posting numbers at a rate that far exceeds his career numbers. He currently stands with a .351 batting average and a 1.059 OPS, up from his career .254 average and .704 OPS.
Zack Cozart has below average exit velocity, only 84 mph. We’re not talking a touch below average, either, he’s more than a full standard deviation below with a z-score of -1.37. All this made me curious about where exactly he sat on the exit velocity spectrum, whether there are other similar outliers, and if there is anything we can learn from them.
I created a Viz using this data. The top image displays the xOBA versus Exit Velocity, and the bottom compares the xOBA and wOBA.
I’ve limited the default settings to a 200 PA minimum and highlighted the outliers. You can change the plate appearances minimum and highlight any player or team that you’d like.
Notice how, among those with at least 200 PA, Cozart’s exit velocity is quite a bit below average. Only a dozen or so batters have a lower exit velocity, and none of them have a higher xOBA, or wOBA for that matter. I added an EV slider to the wOBA vs xOBA chart, and if you set the slider to a maximum of 86 mph you’ll see the only batter with at least 200 PA with a higher wOBA is…. Joey Votto?!
So that’s a bit weird. Or maybe it shouldn’t be, since Votto was highlighted on the xOBA vs EV chart as well. You’d expect a guy like Votto to hit the ball a little harder than that, though, and in the past he’s averaged around 88 mph as opposed to 86.
This season, and I want to stress that we’re only talking about a third of a season here, Joey Votto and Zack Cozart have been oddly similar batters, producing very similar distributions of exit velocities and launch angles. Votto has been superior, generating about a dozen more high value fly balls, which explains their difference in home runs to date. In fact, xStats has given Cozart only 5 expected home runs, compared to the 9 he’s actually hit. For Votto, it has gifted 12 expected home runs, as opposed to the 15 he’s registered. In both cases xStats feel these guys have gotten lucky with their fly balls, and with these modest exit velocities you can see why. Great American Ball Park is a great place to hit, though.
It is remarkable that Cozart could climb his way to the active WAR leaderboard using such modest exit velocity numbers, but his swing rate, especially his out of zone swing rate have each reached career lows. His out of zone swing rate is down to 24%, down from 29% last season. He’s clearly made an adjustment in approach, which is boosting his walk rate well past his career high. More than double his career high, actually. These sorts of plate discipline changes are likely sustainable, but they have not translated to significantly better batted balls.
Don’t get me wrong, his batted balls have carried value this season, his expected .294/.385/.461 slash line is nothing to sneeze at, and a full season with that level production would be very valuable. But, at the same time, he’s heavily reliant on launch angle, and launch angle is a fickle mistress.
It should be noted that there *could* be a systematic measurement problem in Cincinnati that could be influencing these batted ball results. I strongly emphasize *could*. I don’t know of any evidence pointing towards exit velocity numbers getting impacted in this manner. That said, Cozart has yet to reach league average exit velocity in any of the three seasons we have data for, and Joey Votto appears to be hitting well below his career norm at the moment. In all likelihood, Cozart will continue this pace, and Votto will gain a few miles per hour.
I should note that this 2017 level of production is not unprecedented for Cozart. He put up similar, albeit weaker, numbers last April and May, prior to falling off in June. In 2015 Cozart suffered a terrible knee injury, tearing his ACL, LCL, and biceps tendon. Ever since this event, Cozart has struggled with knee problems, as you may imagine after such a serious injury.
Last April he described an event where his knee buckle under him while lunging to catch a ball hit by Matt Joyce. This issue, perhaps, may have been more mental than physical, he claims to have feared a reinjury to the point where minor twinges to his knee made him uneasy. Which I completely understand, having gone through a similarly serious injury to my hand. The fear of reinjury is very powerful, and it can be overwhelming at times.
It is clear that these knee problems held back Cozart last season, but I don’t know the degree to which it hampered him. I know he complained of knee problems in early May, and he missed time in August for soreness in his patellar and Achilles tendons. However, I’m not sure how much of a hindrance the knee could have been in the intervening months where, truth be told, he didn’t hit very well.
He Cozart doesn’t appear to have the bat speed to generate above average exit velocity on a regular basis, so he is forced to rely more on launch angle to generate his value. Launch angle is much less reliable, and as a result the batter has much less control over their success in the long term.
So, what should you expect out of Cozart from here on out? Well, xStats has granted him a .294/.385/.461 slash line to date. Which is still far above his career average production. ZiPS has him pegged for a .274/.335/453 rest of season slash line, while xStats has given him .254/.315/.401 and Steamer .254/.317/.415. All three systems give him 9 to 10 homers.
Personally, I take the under on his rest of season projections. Except home runs, I bet he can hit another 9 or 10 of those, but the batting average may be closer to .240 than .260, and his OPS might be closer to .700 than .800. I’m not convinced his numbers last season were limited entirely due to knee troubles, although I am certain the knee played a role as well.
On the xOBA vs wOBA chart, I’ve highlighted Nick Castellanos, as he is just about as far from the trendline as you can get. His wOBA sitting around .300, and his xOBA .381. Castellanos represents one of the largest differences between xStats and game production, as his batted ball quality has gone largely unchanged since last season but his production numbers have tanked.
His exit velocity is practically the same, albeit slightly better. His average launch angle is down a bit, but that could be a positive sign as I’ll get into in a moment. Importantly, his average fly balls and line drives have increased average exit velocity. This, as it turns out, makes a big difference.
I’ve created a Viz showing his spray chart. Note that the dimensions in this Viz, the x and y axis, are in feet.
The default Viz shows his full spray chart. If you wish to follow along please set the game years to 2016 and 2017, the angle 26 to 39, and exit velocity 0 to 100. Doing so will show you a group of batted balls. Of these, there are 5 singles, 4 doubles, 1 triple, 3 home runs, 62 outs, and 2 sac flies. That’s a .173 batting average and .373 slugging. These are not valuable batted balls.
Now, and this works especially well on a desktop computer, flick between 2016 and 2017 on the slider. If you drag the slider back and forth without letting go, you should be able to flip between the seasons very quickly so you can compare them.
Even if you cannot flip quickly, it shouldn’t take long to realize that the vast majority of these poorly hit balls occurred in 2016. To be precise, 70 out of the 94 occurred in 2016. Yes, obviously 2016 was a larger sample size to draw from. My dataset has 241 plate appearances in 2017 versus 447 in 2016. This drop in poorly hit fly balls is very significant. You would think cutting out these balls would have lead to better overall batted ball results. But, to date, they haven’t. And that’s weird.
As I said before, Castellanos is hitting the ball on the ground more often this season. Which, normally, wouldn’t be a great thing, but he has replaced poorly hit fly balls with poorly hit ground balls. Ignoring the rare occasions when fly balls result in home runs (~3-4%), the ground balls tend to have higher overall success rates. Neither category are particularly valuable, though.
With all this said, Castellanos is clearly frustrated with the start to his season. Wednesday night, after being lifted for a pinch runner, he threw his helmet, which struck Miguel Cabrera’s face. It was an accident, the helmet bounced off the bat rack, but emotions are charged. He’s frustrated, and judging from these batted ball stats, I can see why. He’s hitting the ball just as well as he did last season, but with dramatically worse results. Where do you turn if you’re hitting the ball hard but it isn’t finding grass?
Castellanos claims to be healthy, and his manager backs it up. His batted ball stats do, too, even if his production is missing. He’s slashed a .220/.302/.372 line to date, while xStats has awarded him an expected .284/.360/.543 line. He’s hit five home runs, xStats gave him 13 expected home runs. This is a gigantic disparity.
There is a chance that he’s been well shifted against in the outfield. Many of his high value batted balls have been caught, and many of those balls were hit to roughly the same area of the field. Perhaps his batted balls, even if they are valuable in the abstract sense, are predictable and easy to shift against. Or maybe he’s gone up against above average defense, I’m not sure.
So what should you expect for the rest of the season? ZiPS, Steamer, and xStats each roughly agree upon batting average and OBP, projecting .256/.314, .264/.323, and .263/.317 respectively. The slugging percentages differ quite a bit. ZiPS .428, Steamer .446, and xStats .487. Personally, I would take the over on all three of these projections. I expect him to put up numbers equivalent to his 2016 figures from here on out, that would be .285/.331/.496 with 14 home runs.
This was written on Thursday morning, and I am happy to see Castellanos have a great game on Thursday afternoon.