Second basemen hold a particular fondness for me. I grew up a Chicago Cubs fan and Ryne Sandberg was the man. I wanted to be a second basemen when I grew up. It was that simple. He hit second for a time behind Bob Dernier and they made a potent one-two punch. Dernier got on, stole second and Sandberg either drove him in or got him over to second so Leon Durham could drive him in. No kid wants to hit second but, for a time, hitting second was pretty cool. Sandberg made it cool. As well, I’m not sure that there are too many people aware of the beauty and violence that occurs at the keystone position. Fielding a groundball and throwing it to first base takes as much precision and choreography as a ballet. If you make one wrong step or approach the ball wrong, a fast guy like Brett Gardner can beat it out. There are further perils involved as well. A ball could be skidding innocently along the ground when it suddenly hits a rock, who has a grudge against you because you robbed Derek Jeter of a base hit earlier, and takes a bad hop. If you’re an accomplished fielder like Ryne Sandberg, you adjust and catch the ball, throw it to first and the inning is over. If not, it hits you in the face, rolls into the outfield and two runs score. Your face hurts and the pitcher is no longer your best friend.
The Tampa Bay Rays also have a pretty darn good second baseman in Ben Zobrist. Like Sandberg, Zobrist chokes up on the bat ever so slightly. And both developed their home run stroke later in their careers. One would be hard pressed to pick one over the other. However, because of his versatility, Zobrist is more important to the Rays than Sandberg was to the Cubs or Jeff Kent was to the San Francisco Giants. While Sandberg is a Hall of Famer and considered to be one of the greatest second baseman ever, neither he nor Kent were asked to do what the Rays have asked of Zobrist. He has risen to the occasion each and every time. Non-Rays fans think of Zobrist as a second baseman, but last year was only the second time he played at least 100 games at that position—and that’s not due to injuries or ineffective play. Rays manager Joe Maddon has simply needed him in other places, and Zobrist has never complained about moving around. During his time with the Rays, Ben has played everywhere but catcher and pitcher.
Zobrist’s versatility extends beyond the field. He can hit anywhere in the line-up Maddon needs him. From 2011 to 2013, Zobrist had at least 161 ABs in each of the one thru five slots in the Rays batting order. Offensively, Zobrist quietly adds to the Rays arsenal. An average season for Zobrist the last five years has been a .269/.366/.446 line with 35 doubles, 18 homers, 80 RBI, and 17 stolen bases in 155 games. In 2013, Zobrist’s power output declined, but he made up for it by making more contact and being more efficient on the basepaths, tallying his most hits in a season with 168. No matter how Zobrist is hitting, though, his defense makes him an extreme valuable player. Last season,Zobrist led second basemen in RngR at 9.4, further underlining his value to the Rays.
Ben Zobrist’s game has progressed significantly since entering the big leagues as a light-hitting middle infielder. He has blossomed into one of the most valuable all-around players in baseball, and the Rays have been privileged to have him for so long. While Evan Longoria and Wil Myers will likely post superior offensive numbers when they are done, Rays fans will discover that the void Ben Zobrist leaves both at the plate and in the field will be very difficult to fill.