CINCINNATI — Zack Cozart’s selection to the All-Star Team is going to play nationally as the Donkey Story. You’ve heard it: Joey Votto promised to buy Cozart a donkey if Cozart made the All-Star Team.
That will happen. It’s a cute story, but it overshadows the real Cozart story. His selection is evidence that hard work pays off. It's evidence that even good players can get a lot better, and it's evidence that medical science has come a long way.
It’s also evidence that the fans are paying attention.
Cozart plays in the small market, and when the season started not a lot of people would have put him at the top of the National League shortstop list. But Cozart beat out Corey Seager of the Dodgers, who plays in a mega-market.
“I am pretty surprised that I’m starting,” he said. “That’s just as good as it gets, I think. Making the team is always an individual goal that you go into the season with. I don’t have a lot of individual goals, but that’s obviously one of them that’s up there.
"Obviously starting is that much better because the fans vote you in and they recognize what you’ve done out there. It means a lot. I know Cincinnati was voting hard and I had to have some help outside of Cincy, and that happened.”
Cozart figured something out this spring: it’s all about the way he leaves the bat on his shoulder and relaxes at the plate.
He came in into the season a .246 hitter. This year, he’s hitting .323 with power — nine home runs, 16 doubles, five triples and 33 RBI.
“I think it’s my setup,” Cozart said. “In the past if I was struggling, it was always because I was worried about my hands. Then all of the sudden, I’m not focused on the pitch. When I moved my hands down a week into spring training, it just felt comfortable.”
Cozart, 31, also knows he belongs. He’s been the Reds’ every-day shortstop for six years. His glove was going to keep him in the lineup. That allowed him to experiment at the plate.
“I think that I’ve relaxed overall,” he said. “I don’t panic anymore. In the past if a guy was throwing 96, 97, I felt like I had to cheat a little bit. Now, there’s not a lot of extra stuff going. That makes easier to be in that consistent spot and have a consistent swing.”
Cozart also entered the year fully healthy for the first time since he wrecked his left knee in 2015. It was the kind of injury that ended careers 25 years ago.
Cozart hurt his knee on July 11, and he missed the rest of the season. The rehab was excruitating at times.
“It’s an uncommon baseball injury,” said Reds medical director Dr. Tim Kremchek said. “It’s more of a injury you see in football or soccer when the foot is planted and you get hit on the inside part of the knee. The way he did it was unique. When I watched it at first, I thought he hyperextended it. When you have twisting, I knew it was something worse.
“He had damaged the ACL, meniscus, posterior and lateral ligaments on the outside of his knee. In some ways that’s the kiss of death. You never really know how those guys are going to come back. Can they come back? Can they come back even close to the same level? Especially at shortstop.”
Cozart came back last year and played in 121 games. He played through pain in all of them.
He had a solid year — .252, 16 home runs, 50 RBI — but he knew he could do better.
“Even though I’ve had some decent years, you always want to get better,” he said. “I think that’s the key.”
He did that this year.
“He’s been through a lot,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “He’s been through injuries, the huge injury to his knee back in 2015 and having to watch over that last year. Then to come back and have this type of a season. If he’s 0-for-5, if he’s 4-for-5, he comes in after a win and he’s as happy and as excited as anybody on our ball club, and that’s great to see. And you can’t say that for everybody in baseball. There are people who are really numbers-driven over team wins, and he’s a team player.”
His name has been out there as far as a trade candidate or free agency and all this other stuff, and he’s handled it extremely well and just really focused, as he said, he’s just here to play baseball. He’s doing a heck of a job of that.”
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.