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Dylan Cozens and Reconciling the Leap

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A developing case study on how to bridge the evaluation gap between the Major and minor leagues.

Dylan Cozens with the Clearwater Threshers in 2015
Dylan Cozens with the Clearwater Threshers in 2015
Baseball Betsy

To get this out of the way right off the bat, I have a long public track record of being very down on Dylan Cozens. It's only fair that I make that plain, but this piece is not really about Dylan Cozens; it is about the complexity of talent evaluation and about the tenuous nature of using the minor leagues to shape our thoughts about players in the Major Leagues.

Cozens is a great place to start this journey. On the surface, Cozens is in the middle of a breakout campaign, hitting .274/.359/.581 in Double-A at the age of 21 (he turns 22 on May 31). His walk rate is a career high (12.0%), and his strikeout rate is also quite high (26.1%), though not unreasonable given his size and power. He has 10 home runs and, surprisingly for a 6'6" monstrosity of a man, nine stolen bases. I came into the year with him ranked as my No. 31 prospect in the system, because of one major factor: I didn't think he could hit Major League pitching.

Cozens's swing has long been stiff, his pitch recognition and approach were poor and, as a 6'6" behemoth, he had some structural limitations. He has made improvements on that last point, though: He lost 15 pounds this winter and, while his swing is still long, he has managed to lose some of the stiffness of it. The pitch recognition and approach are better too; really, he is overall just a flat-out better prospect, and this is the nature of prospect evaluation: You can only evaluate what is in front of you. Once that picture changes, you have to change your opinion.

A little bit ago, my girlfriend and I went to a high school baseball game near us to watch a local catcher projected by some to be a comp round or second-round pick this year. She remarked that baseball is a game that scales well: Baseball looks like baseball at almost every level it is played at. This is an interesting concept that I hadn't thought about before, but is completely true. There are some bits and details that don't work as well because the talent and physical development aren't there, but for the most part, everything balances and the game looks pretty much the same. That is, of course, until you hit the Major Leagues. This is because every level before the Majors is finite, where age or talent level forces players up (or out). Once you hit the Majors, that all stops. Makes you wonder what a secret league played by Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and only other elite players would look like.

Back from the daydream: What does this all mean? And how does all of this relate to Dylan Cozens?

What it means is that there are things that happen in the Majors that don't happen anywhere else in baseball. On some level, this makes Major League baseball a fundamentally different game than what we see in the minor leagues. This is manifested in a couple of ways, but to help illustrate, let's bring Cozens back into the picture. One of my biggest concerns about Cozens is his ability to handle fastballs inside, on his hands. This is not a concern unique to Cozens - it is a question that faces every tall hitter with long arms - and, in fact, it was the biggest question facing Aaron Altherr coming into this season. The reason this question exists is because pitchers who can locate velocity inside every time don't really exist in the minors. That skill set and everything else it implies (command of a good fastball) are Major League skill sets; if you can accomplish that task, you are going to make the Majors fairly quickly. A player with a basic idea of what is going on can wait out a minor league pitcher learning this skill, because the minor leagues lack consistency; sooner or later, that player is going to make a mistake and a hitter is going to punish them for it.

If we were to default to saying we can't evaluate a player because we lack the actual appearance and outcomes against Major League pitchers, there would be no need for talent evaluation or projection. What we can see instead are situations and occurrences that don't show up in the box score. Right now, you can beat Dylan Cozens inside with velocity; no one at his level can really exploit that fact, but you can do it. On the flip side, we look at a player like Nick Williams who also has fairly long arms, but he has the loose and powerful wrists that enable him to pull his hands in and just crush inside fastballs out of the ballpark. Players change, and it is possible that Cozens will find a way to manage this weakness, but right now it is a structural hole and a big one. More importantly, it is not one that is going to show up in minor league stats.

Cozens is just a single example because he is a player of extremes. His raw power is enormous, he is a physical specimen, he is young for his level and he is putting up impressive stats fairly close to the Majors right now, and that all makes for a more exaggerated conversation. This could have been about how we all missed on Odubel Herrera because we worried about all the little things and missed that one skill that translates to higher levels is a feel for contact. And, as we all can pretty plainly see, that boy could really hit.

The moral of the story here isn't that Dylan Cozens is Bad or that there all these "gotcha" flaws to watch out for. The two big takeaways are that 1) players change and 2) you need to change with them. Adapting to new information is not admitting you are wrong, rather it is doing the smart and reasonable thing. In turn, an evolving mind can allow us to admire how truly special the Major Leagues are. Players get hits off of Noah Syndergaard. Pitchers get Trout and Harper out. Major League players can consistently do things no minor leaguer can do, and it is important to recognize what likely will and will not translate to that playing field. Cozens's case is due to be next under that microscope.