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The Curious Case of Ben Zobrist

This piece was originally written for a mainstream audience, yet I’ve never been able to find a good place for it. I think it’s a good example of how you can write sabermetric pieces without relying heavily on advanced statistics and without scaring away new readers. Enjoy.

There are some players in baseball that are chronically underappreciated by fans. These are the players who do not fit into any of our traditional molds: they are first basemen, but not power hitters; leadoff hitters, but not basestealers; bullpen aces, but not closers. Growing up following the game, we learn to expect certain things from specific players, and become baffled when a player does not fit in a specific mold. What to do with a clean-up hitter that only hits 20 homeruns, or a leadoff hitter that hits .260 and steals 4 bases? Both these players may still be valuable – the clean-up hitter could have hit 50 doubles and the leadoff hitter could have reached base more often than a .300 hitter – but our expectations blind us, leading us to view these players as inherently less valuable than others.

Acquired in 2006 from the Astros in the Aubrey Huff trade, Ben Zobrist has never been a typical ballplayer. Zobrist started his time with the Rays as a minor-league shortstop with a weak bat, a good batting eye, and a decent glove – and yet, when he finally reached the majors for good in 2008, he had transformed into a unique player: a slick fielding, power hitting utility man. Between 2008 and 2009, “Zorilla” hit an extra base hit once every 9.6 plate appearances, tied for second-best on the Rays with Carlos Pena. He became one of the Rays’ most potent offensive players in 2009, hitting 27 homeruns and driving in 91 runs, yet he saw time at every defensive position (besides catcher) and every spot in the line-up. He finished eighth in the AL MVP voting that season, but there is an argument to be made that even then people were underrating Zobrist.

Zobrist has always been underrated because he derives a large part of his value from unconventional sources: plate discipline, baserunning, and defense. These are skills that are not normally given much attention by mainstream analysts, and they are easy for the average fan to miss when watching a game; however, by being good in all these areas, in 2009 Zobrist was debatably more valuable than any American League player outside of Joe Mauer.

Skeptics should consider Zobrist’s horrible 2010 season: his power evaporated, he hit just .238/.346/.353, and his batting average was under .200 each of the final three months of the season. Despite this drop off, Zobrist played nearly every day (151 games, tied with Evan Longoria for the most on the team) and the Rays considered him a key player on their team. How come? Again, plate discipline, baserunning, and defense.

With only 27 outs per game for a team, a hitter’s most important job is to not make an out. Hits (especially those of the extra base variety) are obviously good, but walks are also an effective means of reaching base and extending an inning. In 2010, despite his .237 batting average, Ben Zobrist walked 92 times and had an on-base percentage 21 points above league-average. While his power production was horrid, his on-base prowess was enough to make him (believe it or not) an average offensive player – and, remember, an average player is better than 50% of the league. In the majors, average has real value.

The Rays are notoriously aggressive on the base paths, and Zobrist’s baserunning proved both aggressive and effective: he stole 27 bases at a high success rate (89%), and he took an extra base (first to third, second to home, etc.) more often than league average. According to baserunning statistics reported by Baseball Prospectus, Zobrist was the 21st best baserunner in baseball last season, better than Jose Reyes, Andrew McCutchen, and B.J. Upton.

And finally, we reach Zobrist’s pièce de résistance: his defense. Defense is an oft overlooked part of a player’s value, and even when it is considered, it is rarely given the weight it deserves. A player can add value to their team by hitting a double, but they could also add value by catching a ball in the gap, turning a double into an out. As an extreme example, what has more impact on a game: hitting a solo homerun or robbing a solo homerun? It’s a trick question, of course – both events have the same effect, giving that player’s team a one-run boost.

Zobrist excels at defense. Last season, he had a 1.000 fielding percentage in the outfield and a .985 fielding percentage at second base, and advanced defensive statistics all graded him as well above-average in both positions. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), the preeminent defensive statistic publicly available, takes into account a player’s range, arm strength, double-play ability, and error rate, and it rated Zobrist as contributing nine runs to the Rays in defensive value. That may not sound like a lot, but it was third best on the Rays behind only Crawford and Longoria, and it placed him as one of the top 25 best defensive players in the majors.

So despite his low batting average and lack of power, Ben Zobrist was a valuable player to the Rays in 2010. His skillset is so unusual, though, he was underrated by fans in 2010 – heck, he has been underrated every year of his career and he is likely going to be underrated in 2011. Keep this in mind the next time Zobrist takes a walk, steals a base, or makes a running catch; he may not be flashy, but the Rays are lucky to have him.