Ben Zobrist is baseball’s “Mr. Versatility.” Few in the sport can play as many positions, and among them, no one can hit like he can. But here is the funny thing: Zobrist’s days moving around the field were supposed to end last season.
When the Tampa Bay Rays signed Kelly Johnson to a one-year contract, everyone expected him to play the only position he had played since 2007: second base. Instead, we soon heard that the Rays were going to have Johnson bouncing between positions while Ben Zobrist played mostly second base, and that’s exactly what happened. Zobrist wound up starting 117 times at the keystone compared to just 37 times compared at other positions. He began this season prepared to continue that, and it seemed clear that he would. Just three of his first 40 starts came at positions other than second base. But then, in the 64 starts he has made since, just 22 of them have been at second, and he wound up moving to another position before seven of those games were through.
Zobrist’s travels in the field have made for a humorous juxtaposition with where he has batted in the lineup. Zobrist has settled in as the Rays’ number two hitter for their last 40 games, but he has been playing everywhere while doing so, starting 12 games at shortstop, 11 in right field, 9 in left field, 6 at second base, and 2 at designated hitter. Zobrist has already set a career-high with 61 starts this season overall batting second, but his defensive position while doing so has been anything but stable. In fact, Zobrist has now played at least 16 games at all four of his positions, becoming the first player in major league history to play that many contests at second base, shortstop, right field, and left field in the same season. And we still have another month and a half to go!
Ben Zobrist may be best defensively at second base at this point, and ideally, the Rays would love to be playing him there more often. However, the argument is easy to make that Zobrist’s ability to play additional positions has won the Rays at least a game or two this season–in addition to his 3.5 wins above replacement from Baseball-Reference and 4.6 WAR from Fangraphs. When Yunel Escobar got hurt, the Rays didn’t have to go out and acquire or shortstop or start playing Sean Rodriguez every day. They simply moved Zobrist to short and moved on without a hitch. How many teams in baseball could have possibly done the same? Then, in the outfield, the Rays have seen injuries to Wil Myers, David DeJesus, and Brandon Guyer this season, and that could have posed a major issue. Rodriguez is a fine left fielder, but Logan Forsythe has played the outfield just three times this season and no other infield backup has played there even once. There undoubtedly would have been a few misplays had Forsythe, Cole Figueroa, and others been forced to play left field.
Ben Zobrist simplifies everything for Joe Maddon. He can simply put whichever Rays hitters he wants in the lineup, and pencil Zobrist into whatever position is unclaimed. Maybe Zobrist would be best off defensively if he were a second baseman exclusively, but the Rays would be losing a critical part of their team.