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Unsung defensive player: Zack Cozart

8/13/2014

It's not easy getting recognition for your defense when you play in the same league as Andrelton Simmons and Troy Tulowitzki, but such is the fate of Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart.

But when we look at the leaderboards in 2014 for defensive metrics, Cozart is leading the way (all statistics through Sunday):

Defensive Runs Saved

1. Cozart +20

2. Simmons +14

3. Jhonny Peralta +13

4. Jordy Mercer +9

5. Tulowitzki/Alexi Amarista +8

Ultimate Zone Rating

1. Cozart +12

2. Peralta +9.7

2. Erick Aybar +9.7

4. J.J. Hardy +9.4

5. Simmons +8.2

Defensive metrics may be subject to some range of error and judgment -- and thus argument -- on a one-year basis, but the metrics agree that Cozart has been the best shortstop in 2014. It's not a fluke, as Cozart was solid in his first two seasons in the majors, with plus-16 DRS and plus-17 runs via UZR. This season, he has played nearly mistake-free defense. But when the game's elite gloves are discussed, Cozart rarely gets mentioned, perhaps in part because he's a .245 career hitter -- and hitting is still a way to earn a little more recognition.

Simmons may win the Gold Glove in the National League for the next decade, but Cozart should be a yearly challenger and arguably deserves it this season. His glove is good enough that even though the Reds need more offense, they're not looking to replace him despite his poor offensive season.

Cozart may not have a cannon arm like Simmons or Tulowitzki do, but he makes many spectacular plays that don't show up on the highlight reels. Here's a diving stop off a high hop where he gets the forceout; here's a nice double play he starts off another diving stop; and here's another diving stop and forceout.

Baseball Info Solutions tracks every play for its Defensive Runs Saved statistic, and when digging into the numbers, we see that Cozart rates so well overall because of his consistency and mistake-free defense. BIS has two categories called Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays & Errors. Through Sunday, Cozart ranked 14th among shortstops with 34 GFPs (Adeiny Hechavarria of the Marlins was first with 60, while Simmons was second with 55). Cozart had just 14 Misplays & Errors. Compare that to Hechevarria (28), Simmons (23) or the flashy Alcides Escobar (40). Even Tulowitzki, known for his steadiness, had 18 (in less playing time due to his DL stint).

Still, the focus much of the year has been on Cozart's bat.

He hit .180 in April and his power numbers are way down from last year, when he had 12 home runs and 45 extra-base hits. It hasn't helped that with Jay Bruce having a down year and Joey Votto on the disabled list, the Reds sorely needed some of the secondary guys to step up. But Cozart hasn't taken his offensive struggles into the field.

"Defense is the thing that's kept me sane all year," Cozart said last week.

Through Sunday, Reds starters had the lowest balls-in-play average in the majors. Their unsung shortstop is one major reason for that.