• Among the other players who deserve to make their debuts in the Midsummer Classic are the Ray's Corey Dickerson, the Yankees' Aaron Judge and Diamondbacks pitcher Robbie Ray.
By Tom Verducci
June 06, 2017

The story in baseball on Tuesday was the unexpected power display from Reds leftfielder Scooter Gennett. The 27-year-old had hit just 38 home runs in his and had just one multi-homer game, that coming in his rookie season of 2013, but against the Cardinals, Gennett launched four home runs, becoming just the 17th player in history to do so, and added 10 RBIs as par of a 5-for-5 day in a 13-1 win.

Gennett's huge game moved him into the discussion for making the All-Star team for the first time. Now with seven home runs, a .302 batting average and a .914 OPS, Gennett would be a worthy selection (he's started games at five different positions, including DH, this year), but while his single-game outburst might have come as a shock, he might not be having the most surprising overall season on his own team, much less across baseball.

At age 31, and with more than 2,500 major league plate appearances behind him, Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart entered this year as a known, if only mildly valuable property: a sure-handed defender and a below average hitter. (Career OPS+: 82.) Players are rather fixed commodities by the time they are that old and have played that long. Improvements tend to be incremental, if at all.

Then something remarkable happened to Cozart. And it happened only because he began spring training mired in an awful slump.

“The first week, I couldn’t buy a hit,” he said. “Not even close. I’m telling you, it was like I forgot how to hit, period. It was awful.

“So I went up to Don Long and Tony Jaramillo, our hitting coaches, and I said, ‘What do you think if I start with the bat on my shoulder?’ They were like, ‘Hey, whatever you think makes you comfortable.’ I just had to do something different. So I tried it. The first time I did it, I hit a home run.”

The results have been stunning. I can’t recall a hitter this old who became a completely different hitter, especially when it comes to plate discipline. Cozart deserves to be the National League's starting shortstop in the All-Star Game. The .246 career hitter entered play on Tuesday hitting .348 and slugging .620. The player who saw 3.71 pitches per plate appearance is seeing 4.27. And the player who walked in 5.3% of his turns is now walking in 14.1% of them.

Cozart told me it’s all because of the change he made in setting up with the bat on his shoulder. “Physical and mental,” he said.

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The physical part comes from keeping his hands relaxed. Cozart used to get into his stance just as the pitcher set his grip in his glove. Cozart would hold his hands high, which meant he could be standing there with his hands and arms in a fixed, tense position for more than a few beats. Now he rests the bat on his shoulder, and does not lift it into position until the pitcher begins his delivery.

“The mental part comes from not thinking about where my hands are,” he said. “I used to be thinking about where they were—Are they in the right place? How can I get them to the ball quickly? Now, this way, I don’t think about my hands at all. As soon as I start, I’m ready to go.”

“That comes from where I start with the bat, too,” he said. “Now I’m just so confident that I’m going to be on time and put a good swing on a pitch. To me, being able to take pitches comes from the confidence I have now.”

Cozart happens to be the oldest one on this list: the all Never-Been All-Stars who have the best argument for making their first game this year. They are listed here with their ages:

1B: Yonder Alonso, Athletics, 30

2B: Jedd Gyorko, Cardinals, 28

SS: Zack Cozart, Reds, 31

3B: Miguel Sano, Twins, 24

OF: Corey Dickerson, Rays, 28

OF: Michael Conforto, Mets, 24

OF: Aaron Judge, Yankees, 25

RHP: Lance McCullers, Astros, 23

LHP: Robbie Ray, Diamondbacks, 25

Speaking of Never-Been All-Stars, Braves rightfielder Nick Markakis has yet to play in the Midsummer Classic during his first 11 seasons even as he has built an impressive career. With a .727 OPS and one home run, Markakis is unlikely to make it this year either, but he is still headed for a milestone summer. In fact, Markakis is approaching an even more exclusive club than the one Angels slugger Albert Pujols entered last weekend when he became the ninth player to hit 600 home runs. Markakis is closing in on 2,000 career hits, needing just 52 more to reach that plateau. Since 1933, when the All-Star Game began, only four players played long enough and well enough to reach 2,000 hits but never once made an All-Star team: Juan Pierre, Orlando Cabrera, Tony Phillips and Todd Zeile.

Markakis could join Zeile, who played for 11 teams in 16 seasons from 1989 to 2004, as the only players to get 2,000 hits without ever making an All-Star Game or playing on a World Series champion. Here are the players who have the most career hits without being named an All-Star (since 1933):

1. Juan Pierre: 2,217
2. Orlando Cabrera: 2,055
3. Tony Phillips: 2,023
4. Todd Zeile: 2,004
5. Joe Kuhel: 1,952
6. Nick Markakis: 1,948

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