When one thinks of the best players in baseball, one likely thinks of players like Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp, Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, and Joey Votto. If this was to be extended to the best player on the Rays, most people would think of either Evan Longoria or David Price. Ben Zobrist? He’s a nice player, and probably one of the top three to five players on the Rays, but likely not considered one of the top players in baseball.
Yet, Zobrist may be vastly underrated by virtually everyone. According to Ken Rosenthal, Zobrist is ranked either first or second in Wins Above Replacement, depending on which site one uses, since 2009. This may come as a surprise to many, as Zobrist has never had a batting average above .297 in a full season, never hit more than 27 home runs, and has never had more than 91 RBIs. He made his only All-Star Game appearance in 2009. Not the profile of someone that is considered to be the best player in baseball over the last four seasons.
What makes Zobrist so valuable is also a major part of what makes him fairly underrated. Even though he is now primarily a second baseman/right fielder, Zobrist has also spent time in center, left, short, third and first over that time frame. At each position he has appeared at ten times or more, he has been league average defensively, or better. Zobrist also is prone to take a walk, ranking sixth or better in walks in three of the past four seasons. That ability to get on base, and play all over the field, has helped to increase Zobrist’s value.
Another aspect that is a bit underrated about Zobrist is his ability to be in the lineup almost every day. In the past four years, he has played in all but 34 of the games the Rays have had in that time frame. His versatility certainly helps him remain in the lineup each day, and Zobrist has also been remarkably healthy, avoiding the disabled list in his time in the majors.
Zobrist also changed his approach starting with the 2009 season. Primarily a player who had slapped the ball around the field and took walks, Zobrist was not much of a power threat, hitting 22 home runs between the majors and minors from 2004 through 2007. Then, he began focusing more on driving the ball, and changed his swing while becoming more aggressive. That change in approach has allowed him to hit 77 home runs over the past four years, while leading the majors in combined doubles and triples in that time frame. Meanwhile, he also became more aggressive on the basepaths, taking chances when going for extra bases and attempting to steal more. The Rays philosophy of going all out and not worrying about mistakes has certainly helped Zobrist transform into the player he has become.
Essentially, his hard work and willingness to adapt have helped to turn Zobrist into an extremely valuable member of the Rays, and one of their best players. He has also, very quietly and far under anyone’s radar, become one of the best players in the game. Yet, that is likely how the Rays would prefer it to be – where they have another player in Ben Zobrist that is much better than a lot of other people realize.