ALLENTOWN – Dylan Cozens is in the same place he was a year ago and, still, he is in a far better place.
In a perfect world, the 23-year-old slugger would have moved in unison to the major leagues with fellow bash brother Rhys Hoskins last season. Instead, Cozens struggled mightily in his first year at triple-A Lehigh Valley while Hoskins continued to soar all the way to Philadelphia.
Forced to return to the land of the IronPigs, Cozens faced the test that so many minor leaguers – and major leaguers, for that matter – must conquer.
“Part of development is failure and dealing with failure and making adjustments,” Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan said before a recent Lehigh Valley game at Coca-Cola Park. “Guys don’t just show up in the big leagues and hit. They go through their struggles in the minor leagues. They learn themselves, they learn what adjustments they need to make, and they learn what drills they need to do to get their swing tuned in.”
It appears as if those lessons are starting to sink in for Cozens. Through Wednesday’s game, a 2-0 Lehigh Valley win over Pawtucket, he was hitting .267 with seven home runs, 18 RBIs, a .363 on-base percentage, and .877 OPS. The seven homers were tied for the International League lead through Tuesday’s games, and his OPS ranked 10th.
But when you listen to Cozens, you understand why baseball is as much about the mind as it is the body.
“I wanted to do everything I could to succeed this year, and I went into [spring training] with an approach that I thought was going to help me put the ball in play more,” Cozens said.
That sounded reasonable given the fact Cozens struck out 194 times in 542 at-bats last season, a 35.7 percent strikeout rate that severely limited his chances of reaching the big leagues.
“I tried to shorten up my swing, shorten up my stride, shorten up everything, and I tried to put the ball in play, and it just didn’t feel right,” Cozens said.
Phillies first-year hitting coach John Mallee saw what Cozens was doing early in spring training and ordered him to stop.
“That’s not who you are,” Mallee told Cozens. “That’s not your swing. You need to be punishing balls in the zone. You shouldn’t just be putting balls in play.”
Spring training did not go well for Cozens. He had four hits in 23 at-bats and struck out 11 times in big-league camp before being optioned to the minor-league camp. When Cozens opened the Lehigh Valley season with two hits and 10 strikeouts in his first 15 at-bats, he was worried.
“I was so lost that I really was thinking, ‘OK, here we go again, here comes another bad year,’ ” Cozens said. “Then one day I just started relaxing. Physically, I tried to be relaxed as I could, but mentally, I wanted to get back to attacking the baseball.”
Cozens also made a mechanical adjustment.
“I kind of lowered my hands a little,” he said. “I had been trying to hold my hands high because every time I’d swing and miss it was because I was under the ball. I just kept putting my hands higher and higher and higher, and it didn’t work. So now I drop my hands low and they’re relaxed and I feel like they’re quicker. I’m getting to those fastballs that are up in the zone a lot better, so that is huge for me. That’s where these guys like to pitch me, so that has been a huge adjustment that has definitely made me feel a lot better at the plate.”
Since his 2-for-15 start that was almost devoid of contact, Cozens is hitting .289 with a .369 on-base percentage and .936 OPS in 26 games. He has struck out at a 34.9 percent rate during that stretch, but that’s acceptable if the other numbers remain elevated.
“I think the obvious thing is he’s being more selective,” Jordan said. “He still has some strikeouts, but he is taking his walks and that’s the big thing. He has been more patient. A lot of his strikeouts have been called thirds where he is not necessarily chasing as much out of the zone. When he contacts the baseball, he impacts it, and he has always done that.”
The lefthanded-hitting slugger homered three times a week ago in a game against Syracuse, including a line drive to left-center field on a two-strike pitch from Erick Fedde, the Washington Nationals’ best pitching prospect.
“Dylan has heard me say to him many, many times over the years that one of the best swings in our entire system is when Dylan Cozens hits a double to left-center field,” Jordan said. “Some of his doubles go out of the ballpark to left-center. It happened here on the day he hit the three home runs. The first one was a two-strike, 94-mile-per-hour fastball right on the corner of the plate that he crushed. It looked like a double, and it just went out of the ballpark.”
Cozens, of course, must have consistent success to join Hoskins in the big leagues, but the fact that he is off to a far better start than a year ago is a great sign for him and the Phillies.
“This game can test you and make you start doubting your opinion on players,” Jordan said. “Dylan has shown us everything you need to do to be a good major-league player. He has had his struggles along the way mixed in there, but he didn’t all of a sudden forget how to hit. It looked like it at times last year, but I’m proud of him. He has done a lot of good things the first five weeks.”