Ben Zobrist, Stealth MVP Candidate (Again)

He’s a .266 hitter, has just nine homers, and plays for a third-place team. Yet for the second time in three seasons, Ben Zobrist is emerging as an MVP candidate. A deep sleeper, no-way-in-hell-anyone-will-ever-vote-for-him MVP candidate.

With the Rays’ 4-3 loss to the Reds today in the books, Zobrist is now hitting .266/.349/.472. Yet those numbers belie his status as one of the most versatile, and valuable, players in the game.

Of the 160 major league batters with enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title, Zobrist ranks 84th in batting average.

He also ranks:

1st in doubles (27)
4th in extra-base hits (40)
17th in walks (42)
3rd in Fielding Runs (9.7)
Tied for 7th in WAR (4th in the AL)

For Zobrist, this season is a return to his Zorilla form of 2009, in terms of value if not home run power. That year, he hit .297/.405/.543 with 27 bombs, and was the most valuable player in the American League by a comfortable margin going by WAR, generating 8.6 wins for the Rays.

That season seemed to come out of nowhere. He’d slugged 12 homers in 62 games as a part-time player the year before. But no one expected Zobrist to go from light-hitting utility guy to MVP candidate in a span of a couple years. When Zobrist plunged to 10 homers and a .236/.346/.353 line in 2010, it seemed clear that ’09 was a fluke season that would never again be approached, let alone repeated.

Looking back now, it’s likely that Zobrist’s back injury, which plagued him through much of the season, may have been a big reason for his sharp year-to-year decline. And that 2010, not 2009, might have been the fluke season. Tommy Rancel wrote about Jaime Cevallos, the swing mechanic who helped Zobrist revamp his approach and tap into power no one thought he had. Though Zobrist is on pace for a relatively modest 18 homers this year, his concurrent pace of 80 extra-base hits shows that his ’09 power never really went away.

Of course, if Zobrist could only muster an 8th-place MVP finish in ’09 (itself an achievement given he hit below .300, didn’t drive in a ton of runs, and played for a third-place team), he’s got no chance in hell this season to sniff any hardware, at least at the current pace. Not with Jose Bautista threatening telecommunications satellites in deep space, Adrian Gonzalez hitting like vintage Yaz, and the Rays likely ticketed for another third-place finish.

Those caveats (and UZR’s shakiness as an in-season measure) aside, WAR might actually short-change Zobrist’s value to a ballclub, since it doesn’t take versatility into account. Having a player who can play excellent defense at both second base, right field, and other positions gives a manager all kinds of options. He can pinch-hit for more players, knowing he can slide Zobrist almost anywhere on the diamond. He’s also a player who never needs a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner, or defensive replacement, and can slide to almost any position enables a manager to carry an extra pitcher if he so chooses. Given Joe Maddon’s mad scientist tendencies and his ability to squeeze maximum value out of his players, you can probably bump Zobrist’s value up another notch there too.

We can debate how all these variables should affect his exact ranking in baseball’s hierarchy. What we do know is this: Ben Zobrist is one of the most indispensable players in the game today. Not bad for a scrap heap utilityman.




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Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.


58 Responses to “Ben Zobrist, Stealth MVP Candidate (Again)”

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  1. D says:

    I think that 2009 and 2010 are both “flukes” offensively and not just 2010. He will most likely never approach either the great or bad seasons he had and will fall somewhere in the middle every year. Not sure how you can say that this season is very close to 2009, they are pretty far apart offensively.

    I definitely agree with you that his versatility can’t truly be quantified. His is definitely a player that every manager would love to have at their disposal, even if other managers wouldn’t get everything out of Zobrist like Maddon does.

    Not to nitpick, but this needs to be edited. “Also player who never needs…”

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  2. Ben says:

    One of the league’s most indispensable? Yes. Great, great signing by the Rays? Yes. MVP candidate? No. MVP’s, like Gold Gloves and All Star votes, are in large part popularity contests (albeit, a little less so with MVP’s). It’s as much of an indication of which player the fans prefer as it is of which player is “actually” the best. I think as a fangraphs reader or writer, that’s the best way to look at MLB awards while maintaining one’s sanity!

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    • Max says:

      A player can be the among the league’s most valuable players without actually getting support for the BBWAA’s MVP award. Mr. Keri acknowledges this in the first paragraph, and again later, when he points out that Zobrist will probably not actually get much support. I don’t think that’s the point of this article. The point is that his current level of play is actually among the more valuable players in baseball, even if the baseball writers – and commenters in this thread – don’t acknowledge it.

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  3. Gill says:

    He’s 22nd in wOBA among AL hitters. I don’t think that puts him in the MVP conversation.

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    • Brandon says:

      That’s Jonah’s point: he’s not in the conversion because defense is undervalued in MVP discussions and Zobrist, as good a hitter as he is, gives as much or more value to his team with his glove.

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      • west says:

        More like Fangraphs is over blowing his defense. Baseball-reference has his WAR at 3.0. I think that his more accurate, fangraphs WAR is too defense weighted for my liking.

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      • Al Dimond says:

        @west: FG and B-R both add their estimations of runs contributed offensively and defensively. They just estimate the contributions differently.

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      • Jonah Keri says:

        @west

        Knock his UZR down to BRef levels and he’s still a 3 and a half win player to date, pro-rated to 7 WAR for the season. Still elite, and that’s without counting bonus value of versatility.

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      • west says:

        I’m not saying Ben Zobrist isn’t a damn good player, I’m just saying he’s a top 25-30 player, not a top 10 player.

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      • Small Sample Goodness says:

        And they’re just saying you’re wrong.

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      • RC says:

        Yeah, they are saying hes wrong, and doing it with statistics that are inherently flawed.

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      • Doug says:

        If you’re not going to make your argumen with statistics, what are you gonna make it with? I think most people here (and certainly Jonah Keri) recognize the current short comings in defensive stats. Keri’s only trying to highlight that a habitually overlooked player is being overlooked this season again after many people wrote him off as fluke. I never get why these type of articles engender so much angst.

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  4. gradygradychase says:

    Scrap heap utilityman? Who have you talked about on this whole article?

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  5. OremLK says:

    Still my favorite MLB player. Glad to see him rebound like he has.

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  6. Zdeno Chara says:

    Finally Jonah Keri talks about the Rays.

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  7. AK707 says:

    And to think that he wasn’t even considered the better prospect in the Huff deal. Zobrist was just supposed to be a “depth piece,” all glove, no bat. Houston got the raw end of that one, even if they were trying to make it back to the WS.

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  8. jim says:

    and to think Dan O’Dowd refused to trade garrett atkins for zobrist

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    • jrogers says:

      Wait, really? As a Rockies fan and a Zobrist fan that upsets me, but I’d never heard it before. Source? Reference, anyone?

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  9. CircleChange11 says:

    The Rays benefit because their player went outside of the organization for batting instruction. The Rays deserve as much credit for Z as the Giants do for Torres. I have to wonder just what MLB batting coaches do. Now, having said that …

    Is he really worth considering as an MVP candidate, or are we expanding that scenario to include Top 10? I ask because there’s usually a big difference between the 9th place guy and the guy that wins the award.

    I suppose he’s a candidate like 20 others guys could be. At this point he’d be lucky to be in the Azdrubal Cabrera group of candidates.

    Bautista, Gonzales, Granderson, etc. Do we really consider Zobrist aMVP candidate or are we drinking our own Kool-Aid?

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  10. shthar says:

    Lets not go crazy on the versatility.

    He’s a 2b who’s playing some in rf this year.

    Which I like, if a guys bat is strong enough to be in the lineup every day, find a place and play him there.

    Have the scrubs carry 8 gloves.

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    • jim says:

      this year he’s only done 2b/rf, but last year he spent time at every position except SS, C, and P

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    • AK707 says:

      I don’t want my scrubs playing every day. However, I do want a player with an above average bat who can play CF or SS on any day of the week. You underrate a guy who can sub at any position each day of the week and still give you above average offensive production. Guys need rest, and its nice to have a top-notch player that can sub for them.

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  11. Sam says:

    Meh. Zobrist seems to me to be the prime example for why WAR is also not a perfect stat. Never been a fan, and I definitely think he’s highly overrated here on Fangraphs. Good player, not top 5-10 though.

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    • JamesDaBear says:

      It would be funny to see your list of 10 American League players you’d rather have on your team based on 2011 performance.

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      • PaulM. says:

        Granderson, Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Bautista, A. Cabrera, Cano, A-Rod, Teixera, Konerko, Ellsbury.. I would take all of those players over Zobrist. He’s being way over rated on this website the dude is hitting .266 and he strikes out a lot (63 for sub) and he just isn’t even close to being an elite player. Is he a nice guy to have on your bench, yes but he is not even someone who would start for any elite teams. He’s a supersub not an MVP candidate let’s be realistic.

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      • PaulM. says:

        And that’s leaving out pitchers like Hernandez, Pineda, Verlander etc. which I could name 5-10 pitchers who I would take over Zobrist.

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      • Garrett says:

        Atleast you’d like having a shitty ball club.

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      • Brandon says:

        Asdrubal Cabrera is very questionable in your list. Konerko is also terrible at first base and a terrible baserunner. Teixeira has only a big advantage in home runs. Again, the point of this article is that offense is always terribly overrated and usually the only focal point of MVP talk. Zobrist is fantastic defensively (at tougher positions) than your Teixeira/Konerko ‘no-brainers’. And the fact that you don’t think he’d start for the Yankees is pretty amusing – he owns Swisher in just about every facet of the game. JD Drew?? Dominic Brown/Raul Ibanez??? Eric Hinske/Nate McLouth?

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      • JamesDaBear says:

        Cano, Teixiera, Konerko, Ellsbury… I lol’d.

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      • PaulM. says:

        You guys are truly drinking your own koolaid and overrating a decent player. If he’s truly an MVP candidate or even top 30 player in this league you are telling me that you would choose him in a fantasy draft in the first round or two? If so your team would suck. You take him off the Rays and they might lose one or two more games, you take off Longoria/Price you would lose many more games.

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      • dnc says:

        Fantasy doesn’t value defense. If you think fantasy draft = reality, you’re the one drinking some kool aid.

        Zobrist may or may not be an MVP candidate. But to say he wouldn’t start for any elite teams is asinine.

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      • JamesDaBear says:

        Paul… You’re not backing up what you say with anything more than batting average and strikeouts, which mean very little to any player’s evaluation and certainly won’t get you anywhere around here… and you keep calling him a sub when he plays every game. The whole concept of WAR should show you that if you take Zobrist off the Rays, they’d win at least 3 games less, and even that’s not giving him full credit.

        When the hell did fantasy baseball come into this? (BTW… you really couldn’t ignore his ability to play multiple positions then.) No wonder you care so much about his batting average.

        It’s not really how much kool-aid we’ve drank, it’s what the heck did you put in yours?

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  12. Bill says:

    WAR is not a perfect stat, but it is the same for every player. There is no such thing as a player that “disproves” WAR. It’s imperfections affect all players equally.

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    • delv says:

      UZR is variously reliable depending on the position a player plays. Accordingly, so is WAR.

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    • Paul says:

      Diasagree with this
      Read the comments on the Crawford posting a couple of weeks ago,

      Someone pointed out (is it true?) that Batting componet of WAR compares all players; UZR component compares all players at that position.

      So Crawford got a bounce up because his bat is valued against everyone, while his defense is judged against the fat slow aged LF, so he looks like a God compared to them

      Not saying I have a better way, but we need to take WAR in context (and freaking especially when using it for pitching when looking at the HoF)

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      • Paul says:

        disagree with Bill, not delv – doh

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      • balagast says:

        If that is the case then the positional adjustments are you are claiming to be flawed. Crawford takes a positional adjustment hit because he plays LF so that should balance out his vast superiority over most other LFers

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  13. jeffrey gross says:

    Disagree. Take his doubleheader numbers out of the equation, and his line is “meh”. Good total numbers to date, but he’s not been as good all around as the nbrs to date say. Second half will bring down the total line

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  14. DT says:

    Well by this regard…Arod is quietly putting up MVP numbers, which is rare since he’s ARod and i never thought he was able to do anything quietly.

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    • juan pierre's mustache says:

      he really decorated his bedroom without fanfare, put up some tasteful prints with subtle touches of elegance

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  15. Remus says:

    if by stealth you mean not as deserving as other candidates…

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  16. Daniel says:

    not while A-Gon is still on pace for a 10 WAR season. if he’s producing like this in September and doesn’t win it then the system is FUBAR.

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  17. Paul says:

    Unless JoseB gets an 11 WAR season? – JoseB has been MVP so far

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  18. Mike Green says:

    Zobrist is basically a combination of Tony Phillips and Bobby Grich. He does pretty much everything well. On any view of the situation, he’s been one of the best players in the league over the last 2 and 1/2 years.

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  19. Josh says:

    ZORRRIILLLAAAAAAAAA <3

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  20. nolan says:

    Ben Zobrist is no Robbie Alomar.

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  21. adohaj says:

    Ben Zobrist is as much of a candidate as Alex Rodriguez

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  22. gdc says:

    Rather than say Tony Phillips, crank the flux capacitor a bit over 50 years and pick an infielder with above-average but not elite bat who helps the manager by playing multiple positions. But throw in that the manager tells the press how valuable that is and the press is New York during a pennant season and you see how Gil McDougald annually got MVP consideration with Zorillian at best production. Not sure how he was with the glove, but perhaps we should temper our disdain for the votes of the old writers?

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  23. Roy J says:

    Seems I’m a little late on this conversation. Oh well.

    Anyway, Zobrist is probably more valuable to the Rays than most MVP candidates are to their teams. Because he may not be elite at any facet of the game, he’s good at EVERYTHING. He actually has a very good bat for a guy who’s hitting around .270. Because when he does hit the ball, 50% of the time it’s a extra base hit. He has a very good eye and walks quite a bit. He steals a solid amount of bases every year. He has a very good glove at multiple positions.

    Say what you want about him not being elite like Adrian or Jose, but with Zobrist, the Rays would not be able to play the way they do. To have a player that can switch positions on the fly while having a very good bat is one of the most valuable things a manager can have. That opens up the possibility of using different players on different days because of different pitchers. Without Zobrist, all that crazy managing(that’s very effective) that Maddon likes to use wouldn’t be possible and the Rays wouldn’t be anywhere near the Yankees and Red Sox every year.

    Not to mention, but Zobrist by the all star break has eclipsed his career high in doubles. Understand that sooner or later, those doubles are going to leave the park. Zobrist has a tendency to go on these stretches(usually a week or two) where he’s doing nothing but killing the ball. 9 of his 10 home runs came in May, but I bet you he’s going to have another month just like that one. He has good power, so it’s not IF those home runs he has the ability to hit will show up, it’s WHEN.

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