In baseball-ese, that’s the process of snagging hot grounders no matter what hop they seem to be working through. A guy with smooth hands who rarely seems to fight a bounce? He can pick it.
Suffice it to say Zack Cozart and the phrase “pick it” have gone hand-in-hand since his insertion into the Reds starting lineup last year. A member of the Baseball America All-Rookie team, Cozart firmly entrenched himself in the team’s future plans by becoming a defensive presence that can help make good pitchers even better.
Barring an injury, Cozart will be the first Reds shortstop to make consecutive Opening Day starts since Barry Larkin in 2004, pushing a rotating door that’s included Paul Janish, Orlando Cabrera, Alex Gonzalez, Jeff Keppinger, Felipe Lopez and Rich Aurilia officially to the curb.
After fighting for a job last season, Cozart admits this spring has been much less taxing, one in which he’s tinkering rather than worrying about what every at-bat means.
“It’s a lot more relaxing. I can come in and enjoy it a little. I don’t have to worry about going 2-for-2 every day,” he said. “But defense for me is the name of the game. As long as I’m out there pickin’ it, making double plays when we need them, that’s the important part. For me, spring is about getting comfortable offensively, getting my rhythm and timing.”
On a team with superstars like Joey Votto, Aroldis Chapman and Johnny Cueto, one could make a case that Cozart is one of the most important pieces. The organization sent shortstop Didi Gregorius to Cleveland and has decided Billy Hamilton’s future is now in center.
So the Reds have plenty of arms and bats, but they only have one Cozart.
And manager Dusty Baker isn’t shy about dishing out praise when it comes to the former University of Mississippi star.
“He’s as steady as they come on defense, that’s the thing. He did a great job. Especially for a young player, he never threw the ball away,” Baker said. “That’s what a lot of young players do, they have as many throwing errors as they probably do fielding errors.”
While Cozart has made his name on defense, the Tennessee native adds to his value with some respectable offensive numbers. He finished his rookie season with 15 homers and 33 doubles, and although he’ll likely move down the lineup this season, Baker said that might only help Cozart round out his offensive game.
“I feel like I can probably utilize his speed a little more,” Baker said. “I couldn’t hardly let him run batting in front of Joey (Votto).”
Cozart knows he’s never going to be one of the centerpieces of the offense, but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to rest on his laurels. In fact, he expects to be able to carry his weight and then some as the Reds push for a spot in the postseason. He has three hits this spring, but one was a rocket home run against Arizona on Monday.
“Obviously, we have a stacked lineup. They’re going to be doing a lot of damage. But I don’t just want to contribute, I want to drive runs in, I want to steal some bases,” he said. “If those guys are off one day, I want to be there to get a big hit.”
Playing with Brandon Phillips has also been a blessing for Cozart, who said he had great chemistry with the team’s longtime second baseman last season. He thinks the relationship will only improve in his second season.
“It’s awesome. And I think he’s a little relieved, too,” Cozart said. “I’m comfortable playing with him, he makes it easier on me, but I think he’s comfortable, too. It’s a good situation.”
So what exactly makes Cozart so good defensively? Decent speed and good preparation certainly help, but field awareness is one of the most important aspects, he said.
“I can’t pinpoint it. It’s huge to pay attention to detail. You’ve gotta know who’s running, who’s hitting. Position is a big part of what makes me successful,” Cozart said. “Let’s say Johnny Cueto’s pitching, he might be bearing the sinker in on a guy’s hands. That guy might pull it into the six hole.
“Stuff like that coming up through the first part of college and pro ball you didn’t even pay attention to. But now, little stuff like that makes a huge difference.”