The MLB trade deadline is only days away, and Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart's offensive troubles have fans wanting the team to make an upgrade at the position. However, Cozart's struggles have been overblown this season.
There's no denying that Cozart has plenty of room for improvement. His struggles, especially while batting second, have hurt the team's chances to score runs.
Cincinnati has two players, Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, atop the NL rankings in on-base percentage. With those two in the first third of the lineup, Cincinnati has been hoping for Cozart to hit better in between them.
Many fans believe Cozart hits better when is in't No. 2. That's false. The 27-year-old hit .257 in the second spot compared to only .211 while batting seventh. He is also 0-for-11 when batting eighth this season.
When left fielder Ryan Ludwick returns, he will likely bat sixth. Ludwick's return looks like it will force Cozart back to the second spot.
Depending on how Ludwick does upon returning, he could move back to the cleanup spot and Brandon Phillips would go back to batting second, with Cozart moving back down.
Cozart is hitting only .239 and has a .266 OBP, which makes him a bad fit for the No. 2 spot in the lineup.
So why should fans lay off of the shortstop?
Low Slash Line Doesn't Dictate His Game
For all of the criticism Cozart has received this season, he continues to go out and give it his all.
Despite a low overall average, Cozart has done well in certain situations. He is hitting .278 with the bases empty. Unfortunately his numbers dip once runners get on, but he has shown the ability to start rallies.
He has also hit .288 with a .375 OBP when he's ahead in the count, including .326 on the first pitch.
His offensive numbers don't look great, but he has done a good job of producing runs.
Cozart has knocked in 36 runs this season, which is one more than he knocked in all of last season. He is also tied with three other players for the most extra-base hits (32) among all shortstops.
He has some pop in his bat. The right-handed hitter has 23 home runs, 55 doubles and five triples since the beginning of the 2012 season. That ranks among the most at the position during that span.
The shortstop is still learning the strike zone. In 95 games, he has 68 strikeouts—a number that is lower than most might think—but only 15 walks.
He does swing at a lot of pitches out of the zone, and he needs to work on only swinging at strikes. The strikeouts aren't the problem. He doesn't walk much, and his pitch selection results in a lot of easy outs.
He may never hit for a high average, but fans should be content with the power that he has shown so far. Not only does he get extra-base hits, but he is also one of the only players on the team who can consistently move runners over.
Cozart is tied with teammate Bronson Arroyo and three other players for the most sacrifice bunts in MLB with 10. If he's going to struggle to get hits, at least he's doing his job when asked and moving runners over.
He is also tied with another teammate, Phillips, for the most sacrifice flies in all of baseball.
Those are often under-appreciated skills that are only brought up when a player can't get the job done.
Not many shortstops in the league are as good as Cozart defensively. Like many young players, he still has some tough stretches on defense, but he has been solid in the field.
Cozart and Phillips are arguably the best defensive middle infield in baseball. They can get to almost any ball and help their pitchers out.
His slash line isn't impressive, but Cozart has shown promise with his ability to still be a productive player.
Cozart has received the majority of the blame—besides manager Dusty Baker, of course—for the team not being in first place of the NL Central.
If the Reds played in any other division, Cozart's struggles go unnoticed. Cozart is the victim of his team's success. The Reds are percentage points behind the Atlanta Braves for the third-best record in the NL.
Cincinnati is in a tough division, so let's take a look at how the shortstops in St. Louis and Pittsburgh are performing.
The two Pittsburgh shortstops are batting a combined .245. Overall, the Pirates have a .224 average out of the shortstop position. Jordy Mercer has done a nice job lately and should continue to get playing time.
Neither of the teams that the Reds are chasing have gotten much out of their shortstops. In fact, Cozart has put up better numbers than his division foes.
Mercer has played in only 62 games this year, which is more than 30 games fewer than Cozart. Mercer has done well so far, but he still has to show that he can hit consistently. He hit only .210 in his brief time in the majors last year.
Let's not forget that Cozart went on a hot streak to begin last season. It was a smaller sample size, but he was hitting .277 in the middle of May last year. It shows that a player like Mercer could be in store for a rough stretch as the league figures him out.
The Cardinals and the Pirates have both posted better records with worse production out of their shortstops, so the Reds should be able to handle Cozart's low average.
Cozart needs to start hitting better for the Reds to make a serious run at the division. If he continues to struggle to hit for a decent average, it will be tough for the Reds to overcome a five-game deficit.
As long as he continues to play great defense and move runners over, he is still helping the team more than he is hurting it.
The teams ahead of the Reds are dealing with the same issue. However, they have been able to find other ways to win games. Clutch hitting has been the key for the Cardinals, and the Pirates have won with incredible pitching.
The NL Central owns the top three rotations in baseball, so this race will come down to who has the most consistent offense. So far the Cardinals are winning the battle. A late surge by Cozart and third baseman Todd Frazier would change the division race.
Cozart is only in his second full season and still needs time to adjust to major league pitching.
Cincinnati is in position to make the playoffs, so the team doesn't need to make a huge move to try to upgrade at shortstop. Cozart has been much maligned this season, but he continues to do everything he can to help the Reds.
*All stats are courtesy of MLB.com entering play on 7/28/2013