Zobrist the Next Beltre?

By at least one comprehensive measure of value, Ben Zobrist was the best player in baseball last year. Yes, by Wins Above Replacement (WAR), the FanGraphs statistic that includes component statistics from both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, Zobrist was worth 8.6 WAR last year as he rode solid defense at second base just barely past Albert Pujols.

It was, to say the least, a surprise. The year before, Zobrist had accumulated a mere 1.3 WAR in his 227 plate appearances. In fact, since FanGraphs started tracking the stat in 2002, Zobrist’s 2009 effort created the biggest gap between a player’s best season by WAR and his second-best season. Let’s check out the rest of the biggest “flukes.”

                   Best WAR   Second-Best WAR    Difference
Ben Zobrist         8.6          1.3             7.3
Adrian Beltre       9.9          4.6             5.3
Richard Hidalgo     6.1          1.8             4.3
Ryan Ludwick        5.7          1.9             3.8
Magglio Ordonez     8.8          5.2             3.6
J.D. Drew           8.3          4.8             3.5
Bret Boone          7.3          3.8             3.5
Jim Thome           7.3          4.8             2.5

Luckily for the Rays, Zobrist’s big season did not come in a contract year like it did for second place on this list, Adrian Beltre. If Zobrist falls back to a Beltre-like level of performance in the future, his 2009 will be seen as a fluke, no two ways about it. On the other hand, this list also shows that not all flukes are created equal. Yes, Beltre has a big gap between his best and second-best years, but his second-best WAR total was pretty good, too.

Richard Hidalgo and Bret Boone provide a cautionary tale for Zobrist as neither came close to repeating their top WAR seasons. In their defense, Hidalgo and Boone both had good pre-2002 years that could not factor into this analysis, so it’s possible the gap between their two best seasons is not quite this large. Ryan Ludwick may yet close his gap, but like Magglio Ordonez and J.D. Drew before him, he doesn’t have Zobrist’s solid infield defense (or positional versatility) to his credit.

Since 2002, the lowest second-best WAR for a player that accumulated 8+ WAR in one season was Beltre’s 4.6. If that’s the best Zobrist does in the future, he’ll still provide the Rays great value in the short-term. Only three second basemen in baseball bettered that number last year. But we should keep in mind the careers of Boone and Hidalgo before we assume Zobrist has established a new level of performance.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.
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Boone definitely did have a season at least on par with his 7.3WAR 2003. He was better at the plate in 2001 (149WRC+ to 144 in 2003) and likely about equal in the field, though his UZR is all over the place in his three productive seasons in the post-2002 WAR era. If you figure his defense conservatively between 0-5 for 2001, his 2001 would have been something like a 6.8-7.3 WAR season.