Thus far, the Cincinnati Reds have been a pleasant surprise. By pleasant surprise, I mean they’re not a pile of hot garbage, but that still counts. In large part, this is due to offensive production, as the Reds rank first in fWAR from position players and 28th in fWAR from pitchers. Zack Cozart and Eugenio Suarez have been a huge part in helping the Reds both succeed offensively and mitigate the damage done by their pitching.
Cozart has always been lauded as a defensive-minded shortstop. For the first three years of his career, Cozart’s wRC+ ranged from 56 to 83, yet he still produced positive win totals by every mainstream WAR metric. Cozart has simply proven to be one of the best defenders at his position year in and year out. In addition to that, he was Dusty Baker’s favorite source of bunts from the second spot in the order.
Suarez was acquired by the Reds in the offseason preceding the 2015 season. In that deal, the Reds sent Alfredo Simon to the Tigers for Jonathon Crawford and Suarez. At the time, Crawford was the gem of the deal. Following a strong career at the University of Florida, Crawford was selected in the first round by the Tigers and was their No. 2 prospect. Suarez was seen as more of a middle infield depth player. After being given the starting third base job in 2016, Suarez is now in his second full year starting at that position, whereas Crawford is still in High A.
Cozart and Suarez have been, along with Joey Votto, the best position players in Cincinnati this year. It’s no surprise that Votto is posting a .411 wOBA and currently sits at 2.3 bWARP. However, Cozart and Suarez are keeping pace with him. The pair come in at 2.2 and 2.3 bWARP respectively, with their wOBAs at .409 and .395. Keeping pace with one of the best offensive first basemen is an impressive feat for anyone, much less a glove-minded shortstop and a 25-year-old third baseman.
Both are in line for some regression — Cozart more so, with his .395 BABIP compared to Suarez’ .339. However, there’s reason to believe in the improvement.
On Cozart’s end, there have been some sign that his offensive profile has improved. Compared to his first three seasons, Cozart’s past two seasons have been a revelation. In an injury-shortened 2015 season, he tallied a 105 wRC+ to go along with a 91 wRC+ last year. That’s a massive improvement from the downward spiral from 83 to 56 he had in his first few years. Combining a near average offensive profile with Cozart’s strong defense yielded 2.5 fWAR last year in 121 games. More progression pushes him in with some of the more lauded shortstops.
In addition to that, he’s become a much more patient hitter this year. His strikeout rate has held steady around 17 percent, but his walk rate has jumped up to 12.7 percent. This adds the depth to his offensive profile that he lacked prior to 2017, when his walk rate never rose above 7.3 percent.
As for Suarez, he made a very tangible change going into this season. His swing is much different. My colleague, Joe Clarkin, went over his change in April, and it’s clear that the effects may be lasting. The massive spike in ISO has sustained through this month, and with where Suarez sits with his launch angle, it’s no surprise.
With the season almost being through May, the two have stacked up incredibly well with their competition. Cozart is first in wOBA, wRC+, fWAR, and bWARP among shortstops, whereas Suarez is top six in both wOBA and wRC+ and third in both bWARP and fWAR.
As a pair, they’re primarily rivaled by the likes of Seager and Turner in Los Angeles through the early goings. It’s fair to expect them to be overtaken, but we also may have to start considering them when we think about the better infield combos in the league.
Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.