The best way to describe Ben Zobrist‘s season through June 9th was “uh-oh.” After Zobrist had slugged just .402 in 2013, the second-lowest full-season mark of his career, many wondered if it was because of age. After all, Zobrist was out of his “prime years”, and some guys just lose their ability to hit for power earlier than others. Zobrist followed that up by hitting just .241/.323/.362 through the first 51 games of the season, and that left many wondering if Zobrist truly had gone into decline.
Since June 10th, however, Zobrist has rebounded in a big way, putting up a .317/.406/.495 line to raise his overall mark to .278/.363/.426. Some of that may be due to luck derived from a .346 BABIP, but BABIP doesn’t always mean that a player is getting lucky, but simply that he is making harder contact. Even if Zobrist has been getting somewhat lucky, it is clear that he still has plenty left in the tank.
Zobrist’s rebound has also had plenty of impact on the team. Prior to June 10th, the Rays were averaging 3.6 runs per game. But since then they have averaged 4.3 runs per game. Of course, Zobrist is not the only reason for that increase, but he is a large part of it.
So what was it that caused such a change in performance for Zobrist? First of all, he’s hitting the ball with much more authority. His line drive rate went from 17.14% to 26.37% on hard stuff while it stayed almost the same on breaking balls and offspeed pitches. He’s also hitting less groundballs on all types of pitches while his flyball rate on offspeed stuff and breaking balls has increased. He’s doing a much better job of getting the ball into the outfield and into the gaps, and that is the main reason for all of his success.
Secondly, he has rarely been swinging and missing. His whiff rate on breaking balls after June 10th is nearly half of what it was before, and additionally, he is doing a better job of not swinging-and-missing at offspeed pitches. Swing and miss has never been a huge part of Zobrist’s game, and it still wasn’t at the beginning of the year. But he has gotten even better at not whiffing over the course of the year, and that too has had a big impact on him.
Through all this Ben Zobrist has shown us exactly what he is: a hitter who knows what he is doing. Every player is going to go through his ups and downs, but good hitters can make the adjustments when they are going through an extended slump. Through a combination of some slight mechanical tweaks and a subtly improved plate approach, Zobrist has made the adjustments necessary to dominate at the plate once again even after his slow start.
Hat tip to Brooksbaseball.net for a good deal of the statistical information used in this article