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500 Words on Ben Zobrist

In 2009 and again in 2011, Ben Zobrist led the American League in Wins Above Replacement, which in some households translated to him being the best player in the league. People have strong opinions both ways about WAR as a statistic, and Zobrist was a perfect case study. In 2011, for instance, his WAR according to Baseball Reference was slightly higher than Jose Bautista’s.

A look at basic offensive statistics does not seem to allow for this possibility:

Bautista: .302/.447/.608, 43 homers, 103 RBIs, 105 runs, 9 stolen bases.

Zobrist: .269/.353/.469, 20 homers, 91 RBIs, 99 runs, 19 stolen bases.

So why did WAR give Zobrist the edge? Well, agree or disagree, Zobrist’s defense — he played right field and third base — won him an extra three wins. And, according to WAR, Bautista’s defense cost the Blue Jays a win. That’s a four-win swing, more than enough to make up three or so win difference in their offense.

You can believe this or you can call it statistical witchcraft, but the point is: WAR is the most prominent statistic going that at least TRIES to incorporate defense. Zobrist might not have been the best player in the American League. But, at least WAR suggests he was much better than most people thought. And that is a good thing.

This week, the Royals traded for Ben Zobrist, and even though he isn’t quite the player he once was — this year, for the first time in his career, John Dewan’s system shows him to be a slightly below average defender — it’s a signal of the times. The Royals have the best record in the league even though, by standards of old, they shouldn’t be good at all. They are 14th in the AL in home runs. Their starting rotation has a 4.31 ERA, well below average. How do you explain it?

Well, if you like, you can call it the Zobrist Effect. The Royals do so many little things right that when you add them up, it equals big things. They play the best defense in baseball. They mix in speed with some power. They put the ball in play (Zobrist, actually, strikes out a lot but we’re stretching the illustration).* The Royals do other things that go well beyond Zobrist. For example, they shut down the late innings with the game’s best bullpen.

*Update: As a couple of Brilliant Readers pointed out, Zobrist no longer strikes out a lot. I was looking in his prime years, and he did strike quite a bit then — he struck out 100-plus times four years in a row, topping out at 128 strikeouts in 2011. But these days he does strike out less than average, and this year he has struck out just 26 times in 271 plate appearances so that’s really good.

In 2009, when Zobrist had his best season, the Royals looked utterly hopeless. They lost 97 games despite starter Zack Greinke having a season for the ages. They couldn’t hit, and they had subpar defenders at literally every single position except left field, where they kept pushing for the merely competent David DeJesus to win a Gold Glove. Zobrist, playing in relative anonymity for the thrilling young Tampa Bay Rays, was a symbol of what a team could look like if management would just look beyond the surface.

Six years later, the Royals pick up Zobrist to help them in the stretch run. The amazing part: He fits right in.

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9 Responses to 500 Words on Ben Zobrist

  1. Anon says:

    Have to take exception with the statement that Zobrist strikes out a lot. His career rate is lower than KC’s rate this year – 15.5% v 15.6% – but moreover, his K rate has been declining for 3-4 years now. REally rather remarkable given that K’s leaguewide are trending up.

  2. McKingford says:

    I can’t believe I’m factchecking a Joe Posnanski story, but Zobrist does not strike out a lot. His career rate is 15%, which is below league average, and this year he’s down to 9%, which is his career low.

  3. MikeN says:

    I thought the Moneyball play was to go for high strikeout bashers, steals don’t matter, and defense is overrated too when you can get offense up the middle.

    • Anon says:

      Another person who never read the book.

      • MikeN says:

        Oh I read it and fell for it at the time. I laughed at the part where Scott Hatteberg is a great batter, the equivalent of Jamie Moyer.

        And that monster draft where Oakland managed over several rounds to get players they ranked in their Top 40, those other teams are such fools passing on these great prospects. 10 years later that list doesn’t look so great. Nick Swisher.

    • Hi- The point of Moneyball is to find which skills/players are undervalued and then acquire them because cash-strapped teams can’t afford the obviously great players. Times change, and traits that become undervalued change. Smart teams change with the times.

  4. DB says:

    I know you might be afraid to see what people have to say but your recent article at Sportsworld is a good read

    I personally do not think his phone was totally broken or that is his normal method for dealing with broken phones but I also do not think he was obligated to give it up anyways (specially with the sieve that is the NFL). After Watergate, everyone always states that the cover-up makes it worse but I still do not think they have proven the original case (in order to have a cover-up, there needs to be an original bad act). All that Goodell can prove (even in a civil standard) is that Tom likes the balls softer and Tom yelled at the equipment guys when they were too hard. The equipment guys can read between the lines and made sure they were softer (we still do not know how soft because the NFL makes the Keystones look competent).

    Goodell reminds me of that bully administrator at school who knows you did something wrong but cannot prove it so he latches on to anything and uses that to make you guilty. Look I am tough and will make sure everyone knows I am in charge (specially if people were previously complaining that he was playing favorites like with Kraft). Unless he has some actual evidence (none that I have seen) that Brady actually ordered the softer balls below the legal limit then the Patriots deserve a fine (for an incompetent equipment crew) and that is it.

  5. […] Joe Posnanski, who along with Bill James, is my favorite baseball writer, brought this up in an article he wrote about Ben Zobrist. Posnanski said, “In 2009 and again in 2011, Ben Zobrist led the […]

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