Examining Ben Zobrist’s Early Season Struggles

By David Hill

With the injury to Evan Longoria, the Rays are in need of another player to make an impact in their lineup. Carlos Pena has been reinvigorated since returning to Tampa, while Matt Joyce and Luke Scott have had a nice starts to the season. However, there are questions. Pena has been a solid power source over the last few years, but has contributed almost nothing else on offense. Scott suffered a shoulder injury last season that ended his season in late July, and is being used exclusively as a designated hitter to save some wear on his body.

As such, the Rays need another bat to come to the forefront in their lineup to protect them should any regression occur. The most logical player to improve on his performance thus far would be Ben Zobrist. At this point in the season, Zobrist’s stat line has been rough. Though 29 games, he is only hitting at a .206 clip. Yet, his season has not been as bad as it would first appear.

First, Zobrist is still getting on base. Through 122 plate appearances, he has drawn 23 walks, which is tied for second in the American League. Despite his low batting average, Zobrist has a .361 OBP. Second, when Zobrist has gotten a hit, they have been solid. 11 of his 20 hits have gone for extra bases, with 4 doubles, a league leading 3 triples, and 4 home runs.

Second, Zobrist’s batting ratios have been right around his averages. For the 2012 season, he has a line drive rate of 21%, in line with his career average of 20%. He has an infield fly average of 10%, near his career mark of 11%. His strikeout rate is a bit higher than average, as Zobrist has struck out in 18.9% of his plate appearances this season, up from his career rate of 17.3; however, that is offset by a large gain in his walk rate. Over his career, Zobrist has walked in 12.4% of his plate appearanes; this year, he is walking at an 18.9% clip, identical to his strikeout rate.

Zobrist’s struggles this season can be directly attributed to his batting average on balls in play. The league average is at .289; meanwhile, Zobrist has a BABiP of .225. Given that his other rates are right at his averages, it is likely that Zobrist will begin to see his batting average increase as his luck improves. While Zobrist is unlikely to be a 30 home run hitter, he did hit 27 homers in 2009 and another 20 last year to go along with 46 doubles.

Should his luck on the batted ball revert to the mean, the Zobrist is likely to end up as the same player that we have come to expect – a .260 hitter with nice pop in the bat that can truly help an offense.