RCG Rays 2012 Season Preview: Ben Zobrist


Ben Zobrist is the exemplary Ray. He’s a great team player who does everything he possibly can to help the team win. He hustles out every play and steals bases when he has the opportunity. He hits for a solid average and for nice power, and he’s one of the top run producers on the team. And then there’s the matter of his defense. He plays everywhere and everywhere well, and he’s willing to take whatever position Joe Maddon asks him to play. In 2012, we should see more of the same from Zobrist.

In 2011, Zobrist posted a .269/.353/.469 line with 46 doubles (third in the AL), 6 triples, 20 homers, 91 RBI, 99 runs, and 19 stolen bases (6 CS) in 156 games. He was very consistent between the first and second half, posting a .269/.355/.474 line in the first half and .268/.349/.463 in the second. He was better versus lefties than righties (.303/.372/.535 compared to .256/.348/.445), but he was still fine versus both, although he was understandably much better on the road than on the home (.311/.372/.526 compared to .221/.332/.406). Zobrist struggled in 2010 because he couldn’t hit for power (a product of playing at the Trop), but he figured out the right approach in 2011 and he looks to be a dependable player for the Rays going forward, very productive if not a superstar. Accordingly, a similar projection to his 2011 numbers make sense. Is there any reason to think otherwise?

Zobrist’s numbers look relatively stable overall. He hits a few more line drives than the average player and a few more of his hits to the outfield go for home runs, and that led to a .310 BAbip (batting average on balls in play), nothing suspicious. But what’s interesting was his BAbip by batted ball type. According to Baseball-Reference, 44.8% of Zobrist’s batted balls were groundballs in 2011, 34.3% were flyballs, 19.3% were liners, and 1.7% were bunts. Those are very similar to his career marks of a 43.2% GB%, a 35.1% FB%, a 19.6% LD%, and a 2.1% BU%. (The league averages in 2011 were a 43.9% GB%, a 35.5% FB%, an 18.3% LD%, and a 2.4% BU% respectively.) His BAbip by batted ball type was very different, however. The league averages for BAbip by batted ball type in 2011 were .237 on groundballs, .137 on flyballs, .713 on line drives, and .392 on bunts. For Zobrist in 2011, his BAbip’s by batted ball type were .196, .169, .773, and .833 respectively. His career marks are .217, .115, .707, and .727. Comparing Zobrist’s BAbip by batted ball type to the league average, some instant analysis is that he appears to hit the ball harder than average on his flyballs and line drives, which makes sense since when know he gets so many extra-base hits, on the opposite end of the spectrum, he’s a superlative bunter (a true statement), but then what do we make about his BAbip on groundballs? If Zobrist is fast, why does he get so few hits on groundballs? There are two ways to get a hit on groundballs: when you play it well and it goes through to the outfield, or when you beat it out. Just 6.7% of Zobrist’s groundballs turned to infield singles compared to the league average of 8.3%, definitely strange. And then just 12.9% of his groundballs were hits by pure luck compared to the 15.4% league average. He was really unlucky on groundballs. Taking a glance at his career averages, we seem to see the same thing going on with his BAbip on groundballs to a lesser extent and he’s still an outstanding bunter, but we see precisely the opposite of the inference we made above regarding his flyballs and line drives. What’s going on?

A good method to use in this case is a Chi-squared test, which, in one form, compare observed versus expected values to see whether the observed values differ enough from the expected values to justify that they are not the same. Let’s compare Zobrist’s BAbip by batted ball type to the league average and then his career average. The first test yields the extremely small p-value (probability value) of around .001, illustrating that Zobrist’s BAbip’s by batted ball type are clearly different from the averages. That makes a lot of sense. One problem: bunts. The bunts are such a small sample size (as we saw, just around 2% of batted balls for both Zobrist and the league average), so let’s remove them and do the test again. Removing the bunts still yields an extremely small p-value also around  .001. Zobrist clearly hits ball differently than the league average. But what about his career numbers? Same story, a slightly higher p-value of .0011. Zobrist clearly made an adjustment in 2011 compared to his league averages.

But there’s another disclaimer. Ben Zobrist didn’t blossom into the player he is today until 2009, and he got off of that in 2010 as well. Let’s compare 2009 and 2011. In 2009, Zobrist had a 41.0% GB%, a 34.6% FB%, a 23.9% LD%, and a .004% BU%, and his BAbip by batted balls type was .285 on groundballs, .125 on flyballs, .670 on line drives, and 1.000 on his 2 bunts. There is no point of even doing a test because that will yield the smallest p-value yet. Bottom line, Ben Zobrist has a completely difference BAbip profile (if not batted ball profile) than he had any other season of his career. But that brings us back to our earlier question: can he at least sustain his current level of performance if not improve?

We saw above that Zobrist was unlucky on groundballs in 2011. That’s one area where his luck will hopefully neutralize a bit and he’ll gain some points on his batting average. He remains a great bunter, and that will get him 5 or so hits once again this coming season. But what about his BAbip on flyballs and line drives that were completely reversed in his 2011 numbers and his career numbers?

Let’s delve a little bit deeper into this crazy numbers game we’re playing with Zobrist’s 2011 and career BAbip by batted ball type and the league BAbip by batted ball type, specifically for flyballs and line drives. We know that there are different variety of flyballs: there are pop-ups, bloop to the outfield, lazy flyballs, and the hard-hit flyballs you get when the hitter connects squarely that lead to extra-base hits. There’s the same story with liners: you have soft liners, line drives that land in the short outfield for singles, bullets that head towards the gaps but that are often in the air long enough to be caught, liners that are hit so hard they’re not home runs just because they’re hit too low, and then line drive home runs. How do we differentiate between these different varieties? Pop-ups is the easiest one because B-Ref gives us the IF/FB% stat which tells us percentage of flyballs on the infield. Ben Zobrist’s IF/FB% is 11% both for his 2011 stats and his career while the 2011 league average was 14%. That certainly gave Zobrist an advantage in terms of BAbip. Now we can take out flyballs on the infield and determine the BAbip’s for flyballs to the outfield: .194 in 2011, .131 for Zobrist’s career, and .155 in the major leagues in 2011. That bridges the gap just slightly.

Time out- it’s important to note that home runs are not included in BAbip calculations. But home runs can still give us an idea of how hard Zobrist and the league average player have been hitting the ball. We can contrast that with the percentage of flyballs that went for singles, which are basically all weakly-stroked bloop hits. 11.3% of Zobrist’s flyballs in 2011 went for home runs and 14.3% of his hits went for singles compared to 9.4% and 22.5% for his career and the league average in 2011 of 8.7% and 22.5%. We see from this that Ben Zobrist’s flyballs in 2011 was hit harder than his career average and the 2011 league average, and that explains his higher BAbip. As long as he can continue hitting such hard-hit flyballs like he did consistently in 2011, his BAbip on flyballs will consistently be higher.

Line drives is a more inexact science, but the easiest thing to do is look at percentage of line drive hits that were singles and those that were extra-base hits. In 2011, 60.0% of Zobrist’s line drive hits were singles. For his career, Zobrist has a 57.4% mark while the league average is much higher at 72.2%. Clearly Zobrist’s line drives are hit harder because they go for extra-base hits significantly more often that the league average. But why is Zobrist’s BAbip on line drives so much lower for his career if he actually hit extra-base hits on line drives at a higher rate than he did in 2011? There are two possible answers: 1) Zobrist was lucky in 2011 on liners or 2) he was actually hitting the ball harder, but he was unlucky that outfielders cut off his line drives before they came to the gaps. I think the answer has to do with something Joe Maddon and the Rays like quite a bit: positioning. Ben Zobrist hit a ton of extra-base hits in 2011, in fact, his 72 XBH’s tied for 6th-most in the AL. Teams noticed that and started playing Zobrist a little back, so they were willing to give up some singles to cut off the doubles and triples. I think there was some luck involved, but Zobrist’s BAbip on line drives should remain well above the league average.

Why and how did Zobrist completely flip how hard to hit line drives and flyballs? I think this phenomenon can actually be explained relatively simply. It’s worth noting that Zobrist struck out more and walked less in 2011 compared to 2009-2010 (19.0% of his PA’s and 11.4% compared to 16.8% and 14.6%), and that along with the uptick in power and extra-base hits tells me that he’s swinging a little more aggressively. The Rays would undoubtedly take that tradeoff once again in 2012- especially since he’s bound to gain a few extra-points points in his batting average and therefore his OBP as we’ve seen. I would expect Zobrist’s to go up a bit for groundballs, stay close to the same for flyballs, and go a bit down for line drives. Since Zobrist hits groundballs at more than double the rate he hits line drives, I would expect his average to go up.

In 2012, I project a .275/.360/.480 line from Zobrist with 45 doubles, 5 triples, 23 homers, 100 RBI, 105 runs, and 17 stolen bases in 20 tries. That would make him a slightly more productive player and a steadfastly dangerous threat in a Rays lineup that has gotten significantly stronger since last season. And that’s not even counting Zobrist’s defense. Ben Zobrist is an excellent major league player if not a superstar, and expect another impressive season from him in 2012.