DRaysBay has done something nobody else has been able to do; we have captured Zorilla.
After the 2007 season, Ben Zobrist's future with the Tampa Bay Rays was uncertain. A year after being the team's opening day shortstop, he was replaced by Jason Bartlett, and began the 2008 season fighting for a roster spot. The Rays decided to groom Zobrist for a utility - or the more popular term "super" utility - role. He played all over the infield in spring including first base. He also saw playing time at all three outfield positions as well. I'm pretty sure if they asked, he would have donned the catchers gear or took the mound as well.
At this point in his career, Zobrist's value was rooted in his defense and positional flexibility. Offensively, however, he was a mess. Coming into 2008, he was a career .200/.234/.275 hitter with just 13 extra base hits - including three career home runs. After showing good plate discipline throughout his minor league career, Zobrist had just 13 walks while striking out 47 times in 303 plate appearances. If he was going to have a major-league career, he would need to fix that and do it fast. In case you haven't noticed, he has.
In April, I "cracked" the Zobrist code, speaking the swing mechanic - Jaime Cevallos - that helped turn Zobrist from a fringe member of the 25-man roster in to the one that is hitting .287/.404/.622 with 16 home runs in 2009. The beast who has hit 28 home runs in his last 477 plate appearances.
Today, I bring you inside Zobrist code with the man, the myth, the legend that is Zorilla...Ben Zobrist.
Recently, I had the honor of speaking with Zobrist about his side of the story. As mentioned, Ben's career path was on shaky ground following the 2007 season. As fate would have it, Zobrist stubbled upon Cevallos and his training in the offseason. Knowing he needed to improve, Zobrist was open to the unconventional teachings.
"I knew something had to change," Zobrist said. "Jaime approached me at showtime (a training facility in Tennessee) with some video of good big league hitters and compared it with swings he had of mine, showed me the difference, gave me his philosophy of how I needed to change my swing." At first, Zobrist's admits that he was uncertain of Cevallos's technique. However, after hearing a familiar voice echo the same advice, he bought into the system a bit more. "Jaime's techniques made sense but I wasn't too sure about making complete changes based on a guy that I didn't know too well, but when I heard Dan, who I knew well basically telling me very similar things in a different way, I knew I had to go with it," says Zobrist.
The "Dan" he is referring to is Dan Heefner, manager of the baseball team at Dallas Baptist University where Zobrist played in college. He also happens to be Ben's brother-in-law. Heefner noticed things very similar to Cevallos, and in different ways both coaches helped change the way Zobrist swung the bat. Heffner told him "to stay connected in the swing." "What he meant," Zobrist explains "was to keep all body parts moving together into the ball instead of fluid separated swing that many hitting coaches teach. When I worked on these things in my swing, I immediately saw the power difference in BP. Taking it into the game was tough but I made the adjustments."
Knowing it is almost impossible to quantify a coaches teaching in numbers, I asked Ben if he could elaborate on how both impacted his revamped swing. "I would say it was 50/50 what made me make the change between Dan and Jaime," he claims. "I saw the evidence from both of them and couldn't refute it. I was obligated to make the changes when I saw the evidence of a better swing."
In all walks of life change can be a difficult thing. For a major-league baseball player who has done things a certain way nearly all his life this can be even more difficult; especially while facing the best competition in the world. Zobrist knew this, and yet decided for himself that the change was necessary. "You have to be willing to commit to changing for the better. Most big league hitters don't want to mess with something that got them so far in the game, but if you already have the tools, sometimes you just need someone to show you how to use them better," explains Zobrist. Ah, nothing like a trip to the ol' mechanic to get you going.
Since training with Cevallos and Heefner, Zobrist has taken what he's learned from both and tried to pass it along to others. "I have told people about it and used some of the same swing truths when doing my own lessons in Nashville in the offseason, without trying to take the credit for coming up with anything," he says. When asked if he is still in contact with Cevallos, Zobrist said that the two were in contact recently and Cevallos is still "encouraging" him to keep up with the training. However, Zobrist added that he tries "not to get too technical during the season especially if I'm swinging it well. I try to see the ball and swing at strikes."
Statistical analysts continue to marvel at what Zobrist has accomplished over the past year and a half. While we at DRaysBay continue to be amazed by what he's doing on the field, Zobrist himself is taken back a bit by all the success he's having. Even with all the hard work he has put in, he admits that he sometimes is surprised by it all. When asked if he ever sits back and say "wow, this is pretty amazing?" he said "Yes, especially since I didn't realize I had the kind of power potential I have shown lately. I give praise to God for the talents and abilities he gave me, for the opportunities I have right now, and for giving me the wisdom through these people in my life."
Folliwng Akinori Iwamura's injury, Zobrist has worked his way into an everyday player at second base. Even though he's looked comfortable at every position, he admits that the more he plays at a given position the better he feels. "I'm most comfortable where I have been playing most lately." While Zobrist makes it look easy, switching positions does come with challenges. "The difficulties are usually on certain plays....going back on a ball in the outfield, the 2nd base feed to SS, the backhand at short, etc."
Injuries have shifted the organization's plans for Zobrist. He is no longer just a super utility bench player. Instead, he has become an everyday player without a permanent home. That suits him just fine. "I just want to play everyday to help the team, so wherever that is, I'm good with it."
Whether starting or coming off the bench, Zobrist says mentality and attitude have a large role. When asked about his late inning heroics and if there was a secret to the "late inning lightning" he said "coming in late in the game and doing something good is mostly mental. You have to maintain a positive attitude and build on little successes here and there, realizing that you might be just what your team needs to win the game. No pressure, just fun." Fun like facing Matt Thornton or Joe Nathan with the game on the line.
Nicknames are also fun and nobody on the Rays has more than Zobrist does. Around these parts you may hear him referred to as: Late inning lightning, MVZ, Weapon Z, but he admits that his Zorilla is tops. "Zorilla's my favorite and the one that has been catching on lately," he said. He goes on to say that James Shields still goes by the moniker "Big Game" and that recently demoted Andy Sonnanstine was/is known as "Boom Boom." For the player leading the American League in slugging and OPS maybe Boom Boom is a name better suited for himself.
Whether it was the unorthodox teachings of the swing mechanic, the advice of his brother-in-law, good luck, or a blend of all three, Ben Zobrist is proving he is the real deal. As long as he continues to play well, and more importantly play well for the Rays, it doesn't really matter how, but that he is able to sustain a high level of play. The Zobrist code started out as a mystery, but is playing out more like a fairy tale and it could not have happened to a nicer guy.
Huge thanks to Ben Zobrist for taking the time during the season to sit and chat with me. When I say it couldn't happen to a nicer guy I mean it. For the Zobrist Code pt 1, click here.