While Rays fans know that there isn’t much Ben Zobrist can’t do, considering his ability to play seven different defensive positions and hit from both sides of the plate, Zobrist ranks at the top of an elite list of baseball players: super utility players.
“A utility guy is usually a shortstop of second baseman, or maybe an outfielder, who can usually play somewhere else,” Joe Maddon told Lindsay Berra of MLB.com. “But a super utility player can play the whole infield and outfield, can hit from both sides of the plate, and can hit for power. A utility player plays three or four times a week, at most, but a super utility player is an everyday player who plays different spots.”
Zobrist wowed the crowd last night with his two home runs against the Mariners, but his inability to hit with power early in his career as a shortstop is what started Zobrist’s journey to becoming a super utility player.
“I played a decent shortstop, but I wasn’t hitting,” Zobrist told Berra. “In order to get more big league at-bats and get more comfortable, Joe wanted me to have options. I wanted to get out of Triple-A and stick in the big leagues, so it was a no-brainer for me.”
Arizona Diamondbacks super utility player Martin Prado’s career has followed a similar story as he also was looking to play shortstop for the Atlanta Braves, who already had an everyday shortstop.
“[Braves coach Terry Pendleton] told me I’d better start moving around, especially since I wasn’t hitting for a lot of power,” Prado told Berra. “I knew if I wanted to play every day in the big leagues, I needed to play different positions.”
These days, neither Zobrist nor Prado usually know which position they will be playing when they arrive at the ballpark, keeping them on their feet.
“Moving around keeps you more focused, for sure,” Prado said. “You have to come to the field ready for absolutely anything, with an open mind.”
“They have to be mentally ambidextrous,” Maddon said.
“Outfied to infield is the most jarring, because in the outfield, you have much more time to throw,” Zobrist said. “In the infield, you use a much shorter arm action. When I move to second after playing right field, I feel like my action has gotten too deliberate, and I have to switch back into that quicker, boom-boom infield mode.”
Clearly, Zobrist can handle the adjustments. He has played 82 games at second base, 11 games at shortstop, and 40 games in the outfield so far this season. Berra describes Zobrist’s ability by saying, “With proficiency at five positions and the ability to switch-hit, he is like 10 players in one.” Prado plays mostly at third base, as he has played there 86 times this season. However, he sees plenty of time elsewhere on the diamond, playing 28 games at second base, 14 times in the outfield, and once at shortstop this season. Zobrist’s .277 average and .359 on-base percentage with 57 RBIs speak volumes of the switch hitter’s value to the Rays. While Prado bats solely as a right-handed hitter, his .273 average and .326 on-base percentage with 51 RBIs bolster the Diamondbacks lineup as well. Perhaps one of the best stats that highlight a super utility players’ talent is Wins Above Replacement. Since 2010, Prado has amassed a WAR of 14.2, but Zobrist’s WAR has been among the best in baseball at 21.9.
“It opens up possibilities that wouldn’t exist otherwise,” Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations, told Berra. “We’re able to cast a wider net when building our roster, because we can accommodate productive players without being limited to a specific position.”
Zobrist certainly has been productive for the Rays over the years, giving them plenty of possibilities to move him around when necessary. When the Rays placed centerfielder Desmond Jennings on the disabled list on August 6th due to a fractured finger, they didn’t have to sweat how to fill the gap in the outfield. Between Zobrist, Wil Myers, Matt Joyce, Sam Fuld, and Kelly Johnson, the Rays have plenty of options to choose from. However, they have called upon Zobrist to evenly split his time between the outfield and second base in the six games since Jennings’ departure to ensure that they have a player to replace him who can both field and hit at a high level.
Judging by Zobrist’s two homers last night–and more importantly, his great hitting the last few years–it looks like all the moving around on the diamond has not affected him one bit.