Cracking The Zobrist Code: What Is Behind The Ben Zobrist Power Surge?

Editor's Note: Thanks to some love from Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh on the Baseball Prospectus podcast Effectively Wild, we have brought this excellent research by Tommy Rancel out of the time machine. Rancel is now an editor at The Process Report, and you should read his continuing work there. Enjoy. - DR

What happened to Ben Zobrist? Usually, when you're asking such a question it comes with a negative undertone. However, in the curious case of Ben Zobrist it is very much a positive. But what turned a slap-hitter into the man known as Zorilla? Until this point your guess was as good as mine.

Statistically, there is nothing to explain the tremendous surge of power we've seen from Zobrist over the past year. He's turned from a 0.70 isolated power hitter (ISO) in to a .250 ISO hitter in just under 260 plate appearances. Yes, his plate discipline has improved, but simple plate discipline doesn't turn you into a extra-base machine.

There are those who believe working out has made Ben stronger and that's the reason. However, it hard to believe a few extra hours in the gym could turn you from Jason Bartlett to Carlos Pena. I'm sure it helped, but if it were that easy then all your David Eckstein-types would be rushing to the weight room now.

Another theory, and this one is the most popular thanks to quotes by Joe Maddon, is the "swing harder" theory. Sounds simple enough, if you want the ball to go farther then just swing harder. Again, it sounds easy, but if that was the case why wouldn't more people just swing harder?

Basically we we're left in the dark as to why Zobrist has had an incredible increase in power. Take a look at the numbers. Here you'll find Zobrist's first 300 plate appearances compared to his last 250...

Zobrist

06-07

08-09

PA's

303

258

HR

3

15

HR/PA

1/101.0

1/17.2

HR/FB%

4

19

ISO

0.70

0.250

SLG%

0.259

0.500

As you can see there really is no comparison. He went from a fringe major-league to an above-average power hitter pretty quickly. We already know all of this, but we still don't know why. Well, I think I may have found a man with a little bit of information that may help us. Recently I came in contact with a man who Zobrist has openly credited for his recent success; however, nobody has bothered to follow up on the story.

Jaime Cevallos is known as the swing mechanic (it's true he has a website). He describes himself as "a lifelong below-average hitter" who worked hard enough to earn the starting shortstop job at Division 1A Mount Saint Mary's University in 1996. However, the results were not there. He hit just .197/.277/.211 and had only one extra base hit in his first season.

That off-season he decided he would become a better hitter or just quit baseball altogether. "Instead of listening to what others taught about the swing, which I had always done, I decided to study the mechanics of the swing on my own" he said. "Back then I only had Sports Illustrated pictures of players so I tore them out and studied them. I posed in the positions that I felt through my swing, compared them to the pictures and began to make some changes." The results were clear as Cevallos improved to a .364/.466/.523 hitter with four home runs in 1997, earning him first-team all-conference honors and a scholarship.

Cevallos, now an independent swing instructor, developed a passion for swing mechanics. He has dedicated his life "to learning the true key positions of the swing with precise measurable angles and how to train them." From there he started working on his theories, and that led him to start his own company called Mkanx (pronounced Mechanics).

He began working with college players (unfortunately, because of NCAA rules, he could not name names of some of the NCAA players he's worked with) in his of finding some professional ballplayers along the way. "I had just ventured out and worked with players for the first time after 2008, the results validated my work" said Cevallos. "I didn't want to give individual instruction because I want to help many players at a time" he explains.

He invented the "Mkanx training bat" to give his students a better feel of what he was trying to teach them. "The Mkanx training bat communicates knowledge (through feeling) more than it does anything else" he claims. "Rather than me tell a player to try to feel this or that, I can just give them my training bat and they can feel it. That is the purpose of it." Very interesting stuff, but what does this have to do with our own "late inning lightning"? It just so happens that Ben Zobrist started working with Cevallos prior to his breakout.

"Two weeks after deciding that I had studied enough and it was time to teach" said Cevallos. "I began to knock on the doors of facilities to see if there was any interest in having me as a hitting instructor. Most of the answers were no, but I walked into Showtime Sports in Franklin, Tennessee and the manager, Tony Naile, took me seriously, even when I said that I think my principles will change the way hitters practice at all levels of baseball. So he asked me to walk to the back of the facility with him. That is where Ben Zobrist was hitting in the cage."

Devine intervention? Maybe, but Cevallos said he immediately knew he could help Zobrist just by watching him in the cage. "I took one look at his swing and knew that I was going to help him. Not that it was really bad, I just saw opportunity." After Zobrist's time in the cage was up, the two were introduced and Zobrist agreed to workout with Cevallos. The two would meet up a few days later and begin the process. Zobrist also brought along Drew Sutton - a former teammate of Ben's in the Astros Organization and current member of the Cincinnati Reds system. As part of Cevallos's system, he filmed the players from different angles as both Zobrist and Sutton are switch hitters.

From there, Cevallos gathered the information needed and went to work. "I took the video home to analyze and we met again a few days later" he said. "I broke down their swing the way I do. They had never seen anything like it. I gave their swings a rating and showed them how they can improve the number." That rating is called CIR or Cevallos Impact Rating.

"The swing rating scale measures how consistent and powerful a player is" Cevallos explains. "With the right mechanics, you will increase power and consistency at the same time. They really compliment each other, but the misconception has been that you sacrifice one for the other." Initially, Zobrist scored a 287 on the CIR scale. For correlation, Cevallos provided me with this list of players along with their CIR, Career OPS and SLG:

Player

CIR

OPS

SLG

Babe Ruth

474

1.1638

0.69

Ted Williams

429

1.1155

0.634

Albert Pujols

409

1.0489

0.624

Ken Griffey

400

0.9192

0.547

Matt Holliday

393

0.938

0.522

Grady Sizemore

351

0.8612

0.491

Brian McCann

333

0.857

0.499

Tony Gwynn

321

0.847

0.459

Derek Jeter

318

0.848

0.458

Dustin Pedroia

290

0.828

0.459

As you can see Zobrist's power was that of a middle infielder, no surprises there. At first, Cevallos mentions Zobrist was a little apprehensive about changing his approach. "Ben was concerned that he would not be conforming to what the hitting coaches wanted him to be, which was a "spray" hitter, a situational hitter I believe he called it, a guy that is supposed to move guys around the bases and sacrifice himself. I told him that he could be a power hitter AND increase his consistency. He didn't have to settle for that role, I told him, he could have his cake and eat it too." To me that sounds very similar to the change Joe Maddon talked about when Zobrist was told to stop being a singles hitter and "swing harder".

After working together, Cevallos says Zobrist now rates at a 360 on the CIR scale, which would put him just above Grady Sizemore and approaching Matt Holliday. Is it realistic to think we have the next Matt Holliday? Probably not, but after the last 258 PAs of Zobrist's career you can never say never.

I asked Jaime what his goals were for this system, and goals he has; lofty ones in fact. "The highest CIR rating that I have ever seen is Babe Ruth and he had a 474" says Cevallos. "I believe that it is possible to eclipse that mark. That's my goal. I want to work with the next .400 hitter and the first 80 home run man." Cevallos also says players need to spend less time playing in the off-season and more time analyzing themselves. "Too many players want to keep playing during the off-season. But you get better when you stop playing and start analyzing; as long as the analysis is sound."

Getting back to Ben Zobrist, I wondered is this going to be the norm from now on? Is Zorilla here to stay or is this just a phase? According to "the swing mechanic", not only is this real, but he expects Zobrist to continue to improve. I asked if a team gave Zobrist 500 at-bats in a season how many home runs he'd hit. Cevallos didn't hesitate, "30 plus."

30 seems like a big number for a guy who hit just three in his first 303 plate appearances, but Cevallos says this training doesn't only effect power. "It improves everything. When searching for the key positions, I found many positions that improve the player in one way but not multiple ways. I didn't settle for that." He adds, "I knew that the true key positions would be great from many different angles so to speak. The key positions improve power, consistency, discipline, quickness, comfort (less injuries)."

So you be the judge, did Cevallos and his Mkanx training turn Zobrist into a hitting monster on its own? Personally, it's as good of an explanation as anything else we have. I know R.J and myself have looked for a statistical explanation only to come up empty handed. While it may not give us all the answers, it gives us more insight than the weight training and swing harder theories we've heard in the past.

If results like Zobrist and Sutton continue to show for Cevallos, I wonder if more and more teams and players will subscribe to this new method of swing training. As for now, the Zobrist Code just got a bit simpler.

For more information on Jaime Cevallos, his work and his training,visit Mkanx.com or theswingmechanic.com. You can even purchase your own Mkanx's bat and train on your own. Also be on the look out for Cevallos's book titled "The Mkanx Method - How To Use Video To Hit Your Best" which will be released this summer.

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