Kevin Youkilis? Evan Longoria? Mark Teixeira? All fair guesses and all up there, but the top spot belongs to Ben Zobrist. Ben Zobrist? What? Yeah Zobrist is riding a 15% walk rate and 0.351 ISO to the top of the list.
The walk rate is not totally unexpected. Last year it was over 11% and he has always had great walk numbers in the minors. His O-swing, Z-swing and contact numbers are all very good, but about where they were last year. So why the 4% jump in walk rate? Well he is seeing about 4% fewer pitches in the zone. Since he is so good at not swinging at those pitches his walk rate has jumped.
Why fewer pitches in the zone you ask? It probably has something to do with last year’s power surge, which has carried over to this year. The power is a surprise. He never hit over 10 HRs in any year in the minors, but then last year he hit 12 HRs in 227 PAs with a 17.4% HR/FB. This year he has hit 15 in 225 PAs with a 24.2% HR/FB.
The gameday fly ball distances back up the change, as his average fly ball went from 252 ft. and 253 ft. in 2006 and 2007 to 278 ft. and 290 ft. in 2008 and 2009. Zobrist is a switch hitter and although he has slightly more power as a lefty, he gets considerable power from both sides of the plate; his HR/FB rate this year is above 20% from both sides of the plate. His GB% and IFFB% have both decreased every year since 2006 adding to his power.
Zobrist isn’t the best hitter in the AL going forward, and he might not continue to hit just under a quarter of his fly balls for home runs. Still he is a very good hitter and one of a number great young players on the Rays.