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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ben Zobrist: Underrated, Unique, and Other Thoughts (200th Post!)

I have long been impressed with Ben Zobrist. Ever since his breakout 2009 season, he’s flown under the radar to an almost absurd extent. 2012 marked his third straight year as an All-Star snub.

For all intents and purposes, his career began in that 2009 season. That was the first season with more than 62 games or 227 plate appearances. That year, he had a .297/.405/.543 batting line, good for a 149 OPS+ (meaning his OPS was 49% better than league average). He fell off to a 96 mark the following year (which still isn’t that bad), then rebounded to marks of 132 and 136 for the past two years.

His batting has been even more impressive because of the fielding that has come with it, of course. Most advanced fielding stats list him as a good fielder. Added that he usually plays difficult positions, and he’s provided the Rays with a lot of value.

For example, Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement shows just how impressive he’s been. His big 2009, thanks to great fielding and batting, was worth 8.7 WAR. His 2010 was worth 3.9 WAR, then for 2011 he jumped back up to 6.7. This year, he’s already at 5.0. He should be in the MVP discussion every year just about, and yet, he just never is. I don’t really understand why.

But what’s really made it interesting is what WAR doesn’t capture. In that time, Zobrist has played everywhere but pitcher and catcher. Positional versatility is something that hasn’t really been accounted for yet. It’s also what makes this relevant; after mostly playing second base and right field, Zobrist has added shortstop back into his repertoire, playing there in 32 of the past 36 games (he actually came up as a shortstop).

How valuable is it to have a second baseman who can also play a great right field, or even adequate shortstop? Part of it is accounted for in WAR, actually. Having more positions that you can play means you get more playing time, meaning more value. However, it also helps you get the most effective line-up possible, meaning there has to be some value that just isn’t being factored in yet. All of this going back to the question: why hasn’t Zobrist gotten more attention in MVP voting?

In any case, part of the reason this hasn’t been accounted for yet is that it’s so rare. Which also makes me wonder: why don’t more teams have a Ben Zobrist? What should a team look for in making their own Zorilla?

Well, ideally, there should be a log-jam. And not just any log-jam; for example, when the Reds had Yonder Alonso behind Joey Votto, there wasn’t much to be done. Both were more or less stuck at first because they couldn’t play anywhere else. There was no benefit to be had from adding versatility to Alonso’s skill set, as he would have been an awful fielder anywhere else.

A position that takes defensive skill (like Zobrist’s old shortstop) might be better. The Rangers and Orioles have Jurickson Profar and Manny Machado stuck behind Elvis Andrus and J.J. Hardy, respectively. But as shortstops, their bats might not translate to other positions. Also, since those two are supposed to be top prospects (many people rank them in the top three prospects in the league right now), it might be better to not change their positions every day, as that might interfere with their development. Also, since Andrus and Hardy get a lot of their value from being gold glove shortstops, they would probably be more valuable to other teams.

What we need, then, is a good-but-not-great prospect that’s blocked, but that has a good enough bat that they can move around. Also, they have to have some semblance of defensive ability.

Right now, I can only come up with maybe three possibilities. Mike Olt of the Rangers is a third baseman with a good bat that’s stuck behind Adrian Beltre. He could play first base, maybe spell Ian Kinsler at second or fill in in the corner outfielder. The Cardinals have both Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter. Both played mostly third base in the minors, but with David Freese there, they’ve been moving around. Both have played first base, corner outfield, and even second base on rare occasions. Even then, Craig seems to have mostly settled in at first.

All of these just serve to show how unique Ben Zobrist has been. Maybe one of these days, he’ll be fully appreciated.

P.S.: This is also the 200th post written at Hot Corner Harbor!

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