Player Profile: Ben Zobrist

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays

I will preface this by saying that Zobrist’s incredible 2009 was bittersweet for me, as I passed the opportunity to pick him up in late April, when he was still splitting time 50-50 with Gabe Gross in right field. While it’s a little unfair to root against a player for the sake of your fantasy team, every home run and every stolen base hurt just a little bit more while Stephen Drew was dragging down my overall line.

But what a year Zobrist had. And, though it was a little surprising to see him atop the leaderboards, it wasn’t as unexpected as many people seem to think, as Zobrist showed flashes of his talent in recent years under the Tampa Bay banner. But his ascension to the top of the fantasy heap was quite the journey, beginning in 2004 as a sixth-round draft pick of the Houston Astros.

As a 23-year-old in 2004, Zobrist began his career at low-A Tri City as a slick hitting shortstop with an exceptional plate approach and batting eye. Though he was unable to deliver much in the power department, with just four home runs in 257 at-bats, his 43:31 BB:K ratio was nothing but superb. With a .339/.438/.463 line to boot, Zobrist was given a modest promotion to Single-A Lexington.

The next year, 2005, was a very similar season to 2004 for Zobrist. Again, he was able to put together an exemplary BB:K rate, at 84:52 in 478 plate appearances. However, the power was not there, as Zobrist put just five balls into the stands. His overall stats for the season were very good, however, as Zobrist put up a .304/.415/.413 line in 247 at-bats for A-ball Lexington, with a .333/.475/.496 share for High-A Salem.

With his trade to Tampa Bay as part of the Aubrey Huff deal, 2006 was a bit of a transition year for Zobrist. Beginning the year at Double-A for Houston, Zobrist registered a season much in line with his previous years, with exceptional plate discipline (55 walks against 46 strikeouts in 315 at-bats) but little power (three home runs). He struggled a bit over his 69 at-bats for triple-A Durham after moving over to the Tampa Bay organization, with just four extra-base hits. However, Tampa Bay called him up to the bigs. Unfortunately, Zobrist was completely lost in his first stint against major league pitching, posting a .222/.260/.311 line with just two home runs in 183 at-bats. Even Zobrist’s patented plate discipline couldn’t save him, as he posted the first sub-one BB:K rate of his career, at 10 walks against 26 strikeouts.

The beginning of 2007 saw Zobrist return to the comforts of Triple-A, where he put together a .279/.403/.455 line in 222 at-bats, with 43 walks against 38 strikeouts. In addition, Zobrist’s power finally started to poke through a bit, as he hit seven longballs while down on the farm. As a result, Tampa thought it prudent to promote their shortstop to the Devil Rays. He flopped again, though, posting a .155/.184/.206 line in 97 at-bats to go along with just one home run and a 3:21 BB:K ratio. To add insult to injury… or more accurately, injury to insult, a strained oblique muscle in August effectively put an end to the prospect’s season.

While 2007 was a bit of a lost season for the “old” shortstop, who turned 26 that year, 2008 saw Zobrist finally hit his stride as a batter. The big shortstop, standing 6-3, 200 pounds, played the majority of the season in the majors, where he showed some serious promise. After hitting four home runs in 71 at-bats for Durham to go along with his excellent plate discipline, Zobrist broke out in a big way with 12 homers in 198 at-bats in the American League. In addition, for the first time his batting eye carried over from the minors, as he posted a 25:37 BB:K rate. His .253/.339/.505 line was a great showing from the budding batter and Tampa Bay rewarded him with a spot on their Opening Day roster in 2009.

Carrying over from the previous season, 2009 was Ben Zobrist‘s big coming out party in every sense of the phrase. Though he split time in the outfield at the season’s onset, he eventually beat out Gabe Gross for the starting job, aided by injuries in the infield that created more opportunities for him to prove his worth. When he was eventually handed the starting job, Zobrist did not look back, finishing the year with a .297/.405/.543 line to go along with 27 homers and a 91:104 BB:K ratio in 501 at-bats. Adding in 17 stolen bases for good measure, the shortstop-eligible Zobrist posted one of the best seasons in all of fantasy baseball in 2009.

Despite the excellent results, Zobrist still has some uncertainty about his ultimate upside as a player. Sure, he was superb in 2009 and in limited time in 2008. However, his iffy track record and lack of power at all levels before 2007 cast some doubt as to his actual baseline talent level.

To start with, Zobrist’s 2009 has launched him into the echelon of one of the better hitters in the majors – and certainly of fantasy baseball given his multi-position eligibility. His plate discipline strides were very encouraging in 2009, as this was very important to his overall improvement at the plate. Players who see better pitches and offer at those said better pitches have a distinct advantage over their constituents at the plate. Zobrist was finally able to take advantage of this at the major league level, holding onto his 2008 gains made in O-Swing percentage (2007 O-Swing 26.7 percent v. 17.8 percent in ’08 and 19.3 percent in ’09). In addition, it is encouraging to see that he has not changed his approach against pitches inside the zone, as his ZSwing percentage has changed very little in the past few years. Oftentimes, batters will swing less overall in an attempt to swing at fewer poor pitches. However, in the process, they swing at fewer pitches inside the zone as well. Since Zobrist’s adjustments came almost exclusively against pitches outside the zone, it points to the notion that he is getting better reads on the pitches he sees.

And perhaps more importantly, at this juncture we have every reason to believe that Zobrist’s 2009 and 2008 power outputs are his new norm. Though he was unable to post any semblance of power in his first three years of professional ball, his last three seasons have gone a long way in dispelling any fears that owners should have. With a 17.5 HR/FB rate in 2009 and 17.4 in 2008, the power output seems real. In addition, Zobrist has shown that he can deliver from both sides of the plate. Though many switch-hitters have a significant strength at one side of the plate or the other, Zobrist seems to have just a slight power and batting eye edge while hitting from the right side. Since his power output was, for so long, his one absent tool, he seems good to go for the future.

Going along with his gains in power is the way pitchers approach Zobrist when they come against him at the plate. There is a definite negative correlation between a batter’s isolated slugging percentage and the percentage of strikes they see. Seeing as Zobrist’s Zone percentage fell 5 percent from 2008 to 2009, it seems that pitchers are beginning to respect Zobrist’s power. This is a very encouraging development, especially when considering Zobrist’s improvements in plate discipline, as he should be able to continue to stay patient and turn these additional balls into walks.

In all, Zobrist seems to be a very good bet for 2010, as his developing power, positional flexibility, and added speed make him one of the better players in fantasy baseball. Though it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he will be a high draft pick in 2010, he will likely be worth the billing. Though his .330 BABIP may indicate a bit of regression in his batting average, he will still post excellent overall numbers – a .280-.285, high 20s home runs, a .900 OPS, and double digit steals sounds about right. All told, he should rank as one of the best second baseman or shortstops in the league – should he qualify at both in your leauge – or one of the league’s better outfielders, though not quite elite. Draft Zobrist with confidence in 2010, knowing that you will get what you pay for.

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Comments

  1. X said...

    Over the last year, there has been a lot of publicity about the swing mechanics coach Zobrist hired over the winter, by the name of Jaime Cevallos I think. The guy had studied batting mechanics of many hitters and developed a special bat to help improve others’ mechanics. Does anyone have any insight on much of this actually helped Zobrist or was this just some marketing bs?

  2. John K said...

    Thanks for the article.  Very helpful for my keeper decisions.

    I was interested in eligibility after reading this, and I see that 2B and RF are virtually assured for all leagues next year, but SS will be hit or miss depending on settings: 13G/6GS/62Innings

    Such a bummer for me, I was hoping to avoid having to draft a SS.

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