Ben Zobrist’s Baserunning Woes

By Robbie Knopf

Around baseball, Ben Zobrist is known primarily for his defensive versatility. Rays fans and people who watch him closely have always appreciated him for his offense as a middle-of-the-lineup presence as well. But the other key component of Zobrist’s game is speed. Zobrist has always been a great baserunner and a consistent threat for right around 20 stolen bases per season. But what has happened this season?

So far in 2012, Zobrist has gone just 6 for 12 in stolen bases. Zobrist entered this season with a 79% stolen base success rate  on stolen bases. 50% is a far cry from that. Has Zobrist ever experienced anything like this? At this point last year, Zobrist was 7 for 8 in steals. In 2010 on June 28th, he was 12 for 14. In 2009, he was 8 of 10. In short, no. Zobrist’s 6 caught stealings are already tied for his career-high. But it’s not just the lack of the stolen base success. Zobrist hasn’t been an above-average baserunner at all. He has taken an extra base (going 1st to 3rd on a single or 1st to home on a double) just 33% of the time, a far cry from the 42% MLB average and his 44% career average entering this season. He has already made 6 outs on the bases on tag plays after just 2 all of last season and 5 the past two years. What has happened to Zobrist’s baserunning abilities?

Could this also have something to do with Zobrist’s defense at second base? Zobrist has already made 6 errors at second base in 2012 in 32 games there after making just 6 in 131 games at second base in 2011. And it’s not just carelessness that has been Zobrist’s problem defensively. In 2011, Zobrist posted a 6.8 UZR at second base, with 5.4 of that coming from his range rating (UZR is composed of error rating, range rating, and double play rating for second baseman). In 2012, Zobrist has managed just a -4.0 UZR at second base, albeit in a much smaller sample size, posting a -1.6 range rating. And by the way, Zobrist has grounded into 7 double plays in 2012 after grounding into just 9 in all of 2011. Is there a serious problem here?

What’s the solution to all this? The first question that you have to ask is whether Zobrist has lost a step. Even if Zobrist is slower, he would still be a productive player because of his hitting, his plate discipline, and his ability to play multiple positions. However, there has been no evidence to prove that Zobrist is slower watching him play all season. He looks as fast as ever. So what is going on? I think that the answer is that Zobrist has been trying to overcompensate with Evan Longoria and so many of the Rays’ key contributors out. Zobrist has been trying to do everything he can to get himself into scoring position and be surehanded defensively and just do everything he possibly can to help this team stay afloat. Hopefully Zobrist can relax, especially as Luke Scott and others come off the DL, and just like we have seen his bat rebound from a horrific start, hopefully his ability on the basepaths and in the field can as well.