LOS ANGELES -- Reds shortstop Zack Cozart might be performing as well as anyone could reasonably expect from a player in his first year back from right knee surgery, but that doesn't mean he isn't still feeling the effects almost a year since the procedure ended his 2015 campaign.
"To be honest with you, I have my days where my knee doesn't feel as great," Cozart said. "I don't want to make an excuse, but some of my throwing errors, I don't get into my legs as much as I usually do because I don't trust my knee as much. Other than that, moving side to side and my quick burst, I feel like I have that."
Manager Bryan Price echoed the idea that Cozart's throwing has suffered, saying that the shortstop's errors are coming because he doesn't have the same ability to plant his back leg on quick, strong throws.
The team has been careful with Cozart this season, only once allowing him to start more than five games in a row. When he started six straight at the end of April and in early May, he had to miss two starts with knee tendinitis.
"He feels differently each day," Price said. "Some days, he might go on a streak for three or four days and feels outstanding, and other days it'll feel creaky. We try to stay on top of it and aware of it. We knew that part of this season would be what we've seen with his playing time."
While seeing a similar Cozart in the field has been good for the Reds, it's seeing a different one in the batter's box that has led to significant attention on a team in need of highlights.
All three of his slash-line statistics are on pace for career highs, and he leads the team with a .312 batting average, which has cemented him as leadoff hitter. His 2.7 percent walk rate and above-average power make him unusual for a leadoff man.
"I'm not your typical leadoff hitter who's going to go up there and seeing six, seven pitches or whatever," Cozart said. "If the pitch is there, I'm going to attack it. It's been working out for me, so I don't see why I should change it. That's my mentality. Get up there, get a pitch to hit and attack."
That strategy paid in the series opener against the Dodgers on Monday, when, against the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw, Cozart ripped a first-pitch double to lead off the game. It was his 500th career hit.
The improvement can be traced to a conversation in late 2014, when Cozart, who approximated that he was hitting .215 at the time, looked at his split stats with teammate Skip Schumaker. The exchange essentially went something like this:
"What do you think you hit when you swing at the first pitch?" Schumaker asked.
"Not good, I don't know," Cozart said.
".350," Schumaker informed him.
That conversation led to a more aggressive Cozart. Next season, he displayed a much-improved .258/.310/.459 slash line in 37 games before the knee injury. Despite the subsequent limitations, he's come back even stronger as a hitter.
"There's alway that 'maybe it doesn't come back' feeling, but I worked hard and I put my trust in my trainers," Cozart said. "Obviously, I would like to feel closer to 100 percent than I do, but no one is 100 percent this far into the season."
Jack Baer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Los Angeles. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.