It proved to be paradoxical year for Ben Zobrist, who has been exceedingly popular in fantasy leagues in recent years due to his under-the-radar skills and positional flexibility. The 32-year-old experienced his worst offensive performance (.334 wOBA) since 2010, yet his fantasy value was arguably higher this season than it was a year ago, in which he posted a .365 wOBA.
This strange improvement wasn’t due to an unexpected increase in stolen bases or RBI, which would be similarly absent from his wOBA. Instead, Zobrist proved more valuable this year in fantasy circles than in 2012 because the overall production from shortstop experienced a sharp decline. He was the tenth-ranked shortstop in ESPN leagues in 2012, but the ninth-ranked shortstop this year. While his overall numbers took a nosedive, his relational value amongst shortstops actually increased, which is an overarching statement that’s interesting on its own.
Now, part of that was due to the injuries to guys like Jose Reyes and Derek Jeter, as well as an albatross season by Starlin Castro, so perhaps fantasy owners should expect the overall performance from shortstops to increase next season. However, the real object of inquiry in this article seeks to determine why Ben Zobrist experienced such a sharp decline in production and whether that decrease can be expected to carry into the 2014 season. Owners should keep in mind that Reyes and Jeter will return — and will likely demand a lot of attention on draft day — but Zobrist could be a sly under-the-radar pickup if he can reasonably be expected to rebound from his uncharacteristic season.
First and foremost, it’s important to delineate what we’re looking to address. This isn’t going to be a simple discussion about BABIP or walk rate, as those remained relatively stable. His BABIP was normal, and his batting average was above his career average. Similarly, his walk rate declined a bit, but not dramatically and his 23.9% O-Swing% suggests he’s not chasing a higher percentage of pitches out of the zone. Those go-to discussions for many players aren’t terribly relevant for Zobrist in 2013.
Similarly, we’re not looking to pick on a platoon split. He struggled a bit against left-handed pitching as a righty this year, but that hasn’t been a trend. He hit .308/.388/.491 against left-handed pitchers in 2012 and .303/.372/.535 the year prior. While certainly important regarding his decreased offensive production, it doesn’t appear to be a long-term concern.
Ben Zobrist’s real concern lies in his dramatic shrinkage in power. In his six big-league seasons in which he’s received at least 200 plate appearances, he’s only compiled an ISO under .200 twice, and his .127 ISO in 2013 was (by far) his lowest output since his dreadful 2010 season. It resulted in merely 12 home runs and many question marks.
The 2010 season gives us a useful reference point, though, and if we look at his contact rate in relation to his power numbers, we see an interesting correlation.
His contact rate jumped dramatically this season, and the only other time it’s been above 84.0% was in 2010, which just happens to be the other season where his power fell off the map. It’s perhaps too simplistic to make 84.0% the threshold because his contact rate in 2012 would throw a monkey wrench into the discussion; however, it makes sense that Zobrist would sacrifice power if he significantly increased his contact rate. His contact rate this season, for what it’s worth, was the highest of his career by almost two percent if we discount the paltry 198 plate appearances as a rookie in 2006.
It’s unclear why his contact rate jumped so dramatically. His overall swing rate isn’t unprecedented for his career, and his swinging-strike rate is a mere 0.6% from a season ago. It’s clear, however, that he’s trading power for better contact, and if that carries into the 2014 season, it could be bad news for fantasy owners. After all, he’s age 32 and will turn 33 next year. His stolen base numbers have been in decline the past three seasons, and he’s now old enough not to expect that trend to change. It’s also extremely unlikely that he’s even a .290 hitter, which means it’s imperative that he provides value in the home run department.
If his power doesn’t rebound, Ben Zobrist is essentially a .270 hitter with 10 stolen bases and middling run totals. Even with the positional flexibility, that’s nothing to get excited about. It may have been a top-10 performance this year amongst shortstops, but with the return of Reyes (and Jeter, if one feels like being charitable) — and even Jhonny Peralta, in a way — could make a repeat performance likely fall outside the top-10.
Of course, if the power returns and he can come a 20-home-run and 15-stole-base guy once more, he will be extremely valuable and undervalued at the shortstop position. The way his contact rate and power numbers corrected themselves after the 2010 season make me hopeful that he could experience a similar bounce-back year, but I’m extremely cognizant of the fact that he’s quickly aging and this may be a more long-term tradeoff as his career wanes. One’s evaluation on Zobrist should directly hinge on whether one believes his power will return in 2014.
Print This Post