Friday, January 9, 2015

Ben Zobrist: Baseball's Most Underrated Player

Cabrera, Verlander, Zobrist? (Chat Sports)
Since the start of the 2009 season, Miguel Cabrera has been the most valuable player in baseball. No surprise there, seeing as how he's hit .331/.411/.585 (166 wRC+) during that span while averaging 36 home runs, 120 RBI, and 156 games played per year. His yearly dominance is reflected in his strong MVP showings, including two first-place finishes (neither of which were deserved due to Mike Trout's excellence), one year as runner-up, two other top-five finishes, and most recently a top-10 finish.

During that time, Justin Verlander has been the second most valuable player in baseball. Again, that makes sense, even in light of his recent demise. He was the sport's clear-cut best pitcher for a couple years, winning a Cy Young (deserving another) and an MVP as well as making five All-Star teams. They're both proven studs with huge contracts and, oh yeah, they also happen to be teammates. Cabrera is a surefire Hall of Famer at this point, and Verlander will be too if he can just play out his contract Barry Zito-style without bursting into flame. (Remind me again how Detroit hasn't won a World Series since 1984?)

Here's something I just can't wrap my head around. Baseball's third most valuable player--second most valuable position player--has been, get ready...Ben Zobrist.


How is that possible? The lifelong Tampa Bay Ray and subject of recent trade rumors has never batted .300, tallied 170 hits, or swatted 30 home runs. He has neither scored nor knocked in 100 runs in a season. He's never stolen 25 bases. Zobrist is durable, plays good defense, and is a comfortably above average hitter (118 career wRC+), but I'm having a hard time believing he's been the best position player this side of Miguel Cabrera for the past six years.

So where is Zobrist's value coming from? Has he really been more valuable than big name stars like Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre, and Andrew McCutchen? Those guys are MVPs. All-Stars. Gold Glove winners. Zobrist is a good player; I think we can all agree on that (he's made two All-Star teams and earned MVP votes three times). But an elite, game-changing talent? I don't think so. His most similar batter is Aaron Boone, for crying out loud (two Hall of Fame votes notwithstanding).

But while Zobrist might not be great at anything, he's good at just about everything, especially skills that tend to be undervalued. He's a deceptively good (switch-) hitter, for his numbers--while they don't jump off the page--are nevertheless impressive relative to his home ballpark. He hits for good-not-great averages (usually in the .270 range), walks a lot, and offers solid power via doubles and double-digit home run totals. His .801 OPS from 2009-2014 is really good, especially considering he plays half his games in the hitter's coffin that is Tropicana Field (unsurprisingly, his road OPS exceeds his home OPS by 32 points). He doesn't strike out a ton, either, only once exceeding 110 strikeouts for his career (Derek Jeter, by comparison, did so five times).

Zobrist isn't particularly fast but runs the bases well, and has stolen 102 bases in 137 attempts (74.4 percent success rate). He's notched double-digit steals in each of the past six seasons, nabbing as many as 24 in 2010. Zobrist has been a net positive on the bases, on par with McCutchen in terms of baserunning value, though probably not for much longer as he enters his age 34 season.

Another underrated skill of his is durability. In addition to averaging 153 games per season over the past six, Zobrist also plays a host of different positions, primarily second base. More importantly, he plays them well, albeit without the flair or regularity needed for a Gold Glove. He's a jack of all trades who can hit, field, run, and almost never takes a day off. That's pretty valuable.

So while I may not see Zobrist as one of the three (or even 10) best players in baseball, I have to acknowledge that he's a fine ballplayer in pretty much every regard, not to mention steady as they come.

No comments:

Post a Comment