For the first 423 games of his professional baseball career, Ben Zobrist played a position other than shortstop just twice. That was his position, and he was putting up great minor league numbers to go along with it. But after arriving in the major leagues, Zobrist couldn’t hit consistently and in 2008 transitioned into a utility role. Zobrist has played 7 positions in the big leagues- 5 of them he never played until he had already seen big league time. Then something strange happened. In 2009, Zobrist broke out offensively even while playing all over the field, and the Rays have continued to use him in that role. Even as he batted in the middle of the order, he played a variety of positions, primarily second base and right field. But when team need arose this season, he moved back to his natural position when the team needed it. His hitting has remained excellent. But something interesting happened- his defense at shortstop has been better than it ever was before.
From 2006 to 2009, Zobrist played in 120 big league games at shortstop and managed just a -7.0 Ultimate Zone Rating, solidly below average. He was below-average each season, including over 2 runs below average from 2006 to 2008. This season? He has actually been above-average, coming at +1.6. His UZR/150 (UZR per 150 games) is an outstanding 9.1. The sample size is small, just 37 games, but what’s going on? UZR can be broken down into three categories for shortstops: Error Rating, Range Rating, and Double Play Rating. Let’s look at how Zobrist has done in each of those measures over the years as a shortstop.
The interesting things are that Zobrist was worst overall in Error Rating from 2006 to 2008 and that has been his best category in 2012, and that he was no better than average in Double Play Rating but this season that has been a strength for him as well. His Range Rating has been all over the place. Is there any reason for his ratings changing the way they did in the two of the three categories?
What are Ben Zobrist’s defensive tools? His best tool has always been his arm, but he also features good speed. His actions have never been the prettiest and he doesn’t have the best hands, but he gets away with it thanks to his outstanding arm strength. Some of Zobrist’s best defensive plays, especially at second base, were incredible but they just looked so ugly as he bobbled the ball a little bit and took a while to release the ball. Here’s an example.
Zobrist makes that throw from shallow right field look like nothing. But while it’s cool that he does the spin to make the play, he has trouble making the transfer from glove to hand and it takes a while before he gets the throw away. Notice that play that a catcher, Miguel Olivo, was running. Olivo was running hard and has solid speed for a catcher (53 career stolen bases), but if there was a decent runner running, he probably beats out that play. Zobrist gets negative Range Ratings, but it’s not necessarily that he doesn’t get to balls- often he gets there but can’t get set to throw quick enough to make plays. In Saturday night’s game, there was a play where he ranged well to his right to get to a ball but he had to make a quick transfer from glove to hand while his momentum took him towards third base and he was unable to do it. The play was an infield single, not an error, but Ben Zobrist has his limitations at shortstop.
Why has Zobrist improved so much in terms of Double Play Rating? One big thing is that his instincts at turning two have really improved thanks to his time at second base and he is able to anticipate the way plays will develop much better than he did before. How about his Error Rating really improving while his Range Rating has stayed low? That is Zobrist understanding himself as a player and what he can and can’t do much better than he did before. A lot of Zobrist’s errors in the past had to do with rushing plays and either losing the ball along the way or releasing an inaccurate throw. Now, he understands that there are certain balls that even if he gets to them, he won’t be able to get the out at first and he doesn’t try to make the throws. Zobrist doesn’t any credit for fielding balls that end up as hits in his Range Rating, keeping it low, but he stops himself from committing errors and keeps the ball on the infield, preventing a negative event in the infield hit from turning into something more significant. Is that the ideal? No, we would rather see him make more plays on those balls that he gets to but can’t set himself to throw to first base. The bottom line is that Ben Zobrist is not really a shortstop. He has the ability to be a plus defensive right fielder and second baseman. At shortstop, he will never be a great defender. But he has gone from solidly below-average to passable and maybe even a little bit better as he realized his capabilities and when he can and can’t make plays.
The Rays were victimized acutely earlier this season by errors from their shortstops. Ben Zobrist has solved that problem ever since he moved to shortstop. Hopefully the Rays can get themselves a shortstop who can make all the plays defensively and hits enough to play regularly some time in the near future, allowing Zobrist to return to a position that he’s more comfortable playing. But while he’s at shortstop, he will do everything he can to maximize what he can do and will not try to make too much happen and make the team pay with errors.