With All-Star Berth, Unheralded Ben Zobrist Finally Gets His Due

By Robbie Knopf

The past couple of years, there has been something strange going on with Ben Zobrist. He hasn’t been hitting for much average, hitting .270 the last two years, hasn’t hit for a ton of power, hitting 20 homers the last two years, and last year he didn’t even drive in that many runs (74) or steal many bases (14). But despite all of that, Zobrist finished 16th in the AL MVP voting in 2012 and 18th this past season. How is that possible? We all know he’s versatile, but why should versatility get a solid player that many MVP votes? But what many non-Rays fans don’t appreciate is how the emphasis on Zobrist’s versatility belies an all-around skill-set as good as anyone in baseball.

Ben Zobrist is a good hitter. That becomes even more obvious when you put his numbers in perspective. Between 2010 and 2011, Zobrist managed OPS+ marks of 131 and 137 respectively, meaning he was 31% and 37% above the league average adjusted to ballpark. Who are other players with that type of OPS+ mark? In 2011, his OPS+ put him between Dustin Pedroia and Josh Hamilton while in 2012 he was between Albert Pujols and Austin Jackson (in Jackson’s breakout year). Ben Zobrist may not put up the gaudiest home run totals, but he ranked in the top 8 in the American League in doubles in both 2011 and 2012 and has established himself as a truly formidable hitter. People have always forgot about every hitter in the Rays lineup except Evan Longoria. Zobrist is not quite at Longoria’s level, but he joined Longoria as the two hitters opposing pitchers truly feared whenever they faced the Rays.

Ben Zobrist isn’t the first super-utility player even in recent baseball history. A lot of us remember when Mark DeRosa had a couple of excellent seasons as a super-utility player with the Rangers, Cubs, Indians, and Cardinals. But not only was DeRosa an inferior hitter to Zobrist (106 OPS+ even in his peak years), but he also was a vastly worse defender. DeRosa played a ton of positions but didn’t play any of them well, registering negative career UZR values at all four infield positions and left field; he was only positive in right field. Zobrist, on the other hand, has been considerably above-average at his two regular positions, second base and right field, and around average everywhere else, including at shortstop, where he went from not playing the position for three years to solidifying the position for the Rays in the last couple months of 2012. It’s rare to find a plus defender–it’s exponentially harder to find a plus defender at multiple positions. The only reason Zobrist doesn’t have a Gold Glove is because the voters wouldn’t know which position to give it to him at.

In 2013, Ben Zobrist has not been at his best. His batting line stood at just .264/.352/.379 (105 OPS+) entering Sunday as he has yet to find his power stroke and has fallen into a 3 for 28 rut in his last 7 games. But given everything that he is still doing to help the Rays, it almost doesn’t even matter. Through his versatility, quality defense wherever you put him, and bat that you know will come along, Ben Zobrist is a player every team in baseball wishes they had. The All-Star team was among those teams. Congrats to Zobrist that Jim Leyland and the American League coaching staff appreciate everything he does to help a team win and bestow upon him the honor of being an All-Star.