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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.