GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Zack Cozart knew he wasn’t a leadoff hitter. Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker knew Zack Cozart wasn’t a leadoff hitter. Heck, even Gapper, the team mascot, knew Zack Cozart wasn’t a leadoff hitter.
It isn’t a job a most major league rookies can do, especially one without the true tools a leadoff hitter needs.
As Plato wrote, “Necessity, the mother of invention.”
Out of necessity last year, Baker put Cozart in the leadoff spot because, well, there was nobody else. He tried Drew Stubbs there. No go. He tried Brandon Phillips. No go. Phillips got hurt.
“Everybody talked about how the leadoff spot struggled for us last year, which was obvious, but we won 97 games, even without Joey Votto for 40-some games,” Cozart said.
Even though the Reds were 60-41 with Cozart batting first, even though they won 97 games and made the playoffs, general manager Walt Jocketty went searching for a leadoff hitter. In the past few years, the Reds have done everything but advertise on eBay for a leadoff hitter.
And he found one, trading Stubbs in the offseason to the Cleveland Indians for leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo.
So where does that leave Cozart, the 27-year-old shortstop who made Baseball America’s All-Rookie team last year.
It left him comfortable, that’s where — comfortable knowing that he will bat seventh every day, a place Baker wanted to bat him all along but was unable to do.
“I’m not a leadoff hitter, but it was what the team needed,” he said. “Right now, we’re all healthy, so the seven hole is going to be good for me. It will take a little pressure off me, and I’ll get more chances to drive in some runs.”
So Cozart goes about his everyday work preparing for the season, not worried about whether Baker or Jocketty are watching him hit one in the gap or dive in the hole to make a stop.
“This spring has been so much more relaxing for me,” he said. “Last year was so much fun, going to the playoffs as a rookie. You can’t beat that.”
Cozart is relaxed because he not only knows where he’ll bat, he knows he is on the team and knows he is the starting shortstop. And this is the first year he can say that.
At the beginning of spring training last year, and several previous springs, Cozart was trying to be noticed, trying to say, “Hey, look at me, Coach, I can be your shortstop.”
“Every spring training until this year,” he said, “I was trying to prove to Dusty Baker and Walt Jocketty that I can play in the big leagues, play for this team and help it win. So now I know I’ve made the team I can work on things and get ready for April 1 rather than having to try to hit .350 to impress. That’s pretty cool to be able to be relaxed.”
Baker was thoroughly pleased with what Cozart did, even batting in unnatural spots in the order. He also batted second in 27 games, but the Reds were not as successful with him there, going 14-13.
“He did a real good job,” Baker said. “You prefer a set batting order, but things happened and I had to mix and match and do the best you think for that day.”
Baker laughed, though, and said: “There is no better place in the big leagues than to bat ahead of Joey Votto. You see good pitches, a lot of fastballs, because they don’t want to walk you and face Joey with men on base.”
Baker hopes Cozart can make the adjustment to bat lower in the order, “Because that’s more of a job of batting in runs. It’s a lot different down in the order, but Cozart can handle it.”
Cozart does have speed that Baker plans to utilize more and said: “I’ll let him run a little more this year. I couldn’t let him run last year ahead of Votto in the order because then they’d walk Joey.”
Defense doesn’t much come into the discussion with Cozart because, as Baker said, “You’re doing good if you catch the ball.” And Cozart catches it. And throws it.
“He is as steady as they come on defense,” Baker said. “He did a great job, especially for a young player. He never threw the ball away, and that’s what a lot of young players do — more throwing errors than fielding errors.”
There is one facet Baker would like to see evolve from Cozart. Baker likes his shortstop to be a leader, to put energy into the game, to let people know he’s around.
Cozart expends plenty of energy on the field, but Baker wants more leadership energy, something that is tough for a rookie to do. Well, Cozart no longer is a rookie.
“Dusty has mentioned that,” Cozart said. “But everybody in the clubhouse knows I’m not going to be the rah-rah-rah type. I’m still a young guy, and I have to pick my spots to say anything to one of the guys.
“But this year will be better because I know everybody, the pitchers know me, I know who can throw a pickoff play. I can tell right now I’m a little more relaxed and I’m more of a leader out there because as a shortstop you need that.”
And that’s his goal — to make his manager and his teammates cozy with Cozart.