Ben Zobrist: A Valuable Letdown

A few days ago, our very own sternfan1 -- whom I love with all my blogging heart -- posted an OPS analysis of Ben Zobrist entitled "We have our very own One Hit Wonder." In it, he rightly observes that Zobrist is woefully falling short of our already-tempered expectations. SF1 even goes so far as to make the most egregious of comparisons:

And the beauty of all this, the Rays have committed $17 million dollars to this Nick Green clone over the next three seasons[.]

Aside of SF1's signature use of hyperbole, it indeed has begun to feel that Ben Zobrist has returned to his slap-hitting, under-achieving ways (he would have to be in a wheel chair to match Nick Green's output, though). But, before we let our eyes and OPS tell us the whole story, let's dig deeper into the present Zobrist virus:

First off, Ben Zobrist in 2010 has not been the Zorilla of 2008-2009:

Season G PA HR SB BB% K% ISO BABIP OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Fld WAR
2006 52 198 2 2 5.1% 14.2% 0.087 0.247 0.260 0.311 0.243 43 -2.2 -0.8
2007 31 105 1 2 2.9% 21.6% 0.052 0.182 0.184 0.206 0.180 0 -2.5 -1.1
2008 62 227 12 3 11.0% 18.7% 0.253 0.252 0.339 0.505 0.364 125 -2.5 1.3
2009 152 599 27 17 15.2% 20.8% 0.246 0.326 0.405 0.543 0.408 154 22.8 8.3
2010 121 528 7 23 14.0% 20.0% 0.101 0.291 0.356 0.352 0.329 106 8.4 2.7

(Stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com.)

Zobrist has gone from 54% above average (a 154 wRC+) to a measly 6% away from Joe Quad-A. His OBP and SLG are way down, and he's hit as many home runs as Marco Scutaro, yuck.

Here's a graphical representation of three of Zobrist's pivotal stats, ISOBABIP, and wOBA:

Benzo_data_html_68bba4e4_medium

Note the mean value lines (the horizontal lines). Though they offer an imperfective analysis (one that unwisely gives equal weights to the earlier seasons, which had fewer plate appearances), I think they do offer us a better perspective on where our expectations should be.

It is becoming increasingly likely that the power-slugging, .250+ ISO days of Ben Zobrist were but mirage or good fortune. In fact, closer examination of his stellar 2009 season shows that Zobrist -- like his mean value line -- may be more of a .150 ISO-hitter:

Benzo_medium

(Chart courtesy of Fangraphs.com.)

From the second half of 2009 through the first half of 2010, Zobrist was hitting an ISO of about .150. That puts him in the company of Joe Mauer (circa 2009 notwithstanding) and Angel Pagan.

Let's take a closer look at Zorrila's monthly splits:

Season Split OBP SLG ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
2010 Mar/Apr 0.327 0.356 0.115 0.313 0.320 100
2010 May 0.400 0.514 0.162 0.398 0.398 153
2010 Jun 0.394 0.341 0.068 0.307 0.345 116
2010 Jul 0.354 0.286 0.091 0.219 0.329 106
2010 Aug 0.293 0.205 0.051 0.177 0.237 43

(Stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com.)

Observe the red sections. Ben Zobrist was average in July, according to wRC+, and Neifi-Perez-terrible in August. At the same time, though, Zobrist has had about zero good fortune, suffering through a .190ish BABIP. According to Chris Dutton's xBABIP Quick Calculator, Zobrist's BABIP should have been at least in the .270ish range for the months of July and August.

This tells us something the other data has already alluded to: Ben Zobrist has been unlucky this year. That doesn't entirely explain his performance, though, because he has clearly altered his approach at the plate. Not only do his discpline numbers reflect a change:

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2006 23.3% 60.9% 43.6% 72.7% 90.7% 86.3% 54.0% 56.6% 5.8%
2007 26.7% 59.7% 45.6% 70.5% 87.9% 83.5% 57.3% 66.7% 7.2%
2008 17.8% 61.8% 40.2% 60.8% 91.4% 84.8% 51.0% 56.0% 6.1%
2009 19.5% 59.3% 37.8% 65.3% 88.3% 81.9% 45.9% 52.8% 6.6%
2010 25.2% 51.9% 36.9% 73.8% 91.5% 84.7% 43.8% 54.0% 5.6%
Totals 22.0% 57.6% 38.9% 69.3% 89.9% 83.8% 47.5% 54.9% 6.1%

(Stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com.)

...But his Pitch-F/X batted ball data as well shows he's lost some muscle:

Benzo1_medium

(Click the image for animation. Images courtesy of TexasLeaugers.com.)

Note how in the above GIF that Zobrist rarely approaches the warning tracks in 2010, especially in left field.

Ultimately, what does this mean? Is Zobrist becoming a reincarnation of Nick Green? No. Hands down, no.

Ben Zobrist is having a rough 2010 campaign which has featured a combination of unlucky BABIP and (likely frustration-induced) changes in approach. The results, however, have not destroyed Zobrist's value as a batter nor relative to his contract. He is still an incredible defender with phenomenal positional flexibility and a batter with an above-average eye and good speed.

Despite his down season, Zobrist has been worth nearly 3 WAR. Let's compare that to his contract:

Year Age Salary Sources WAR Value Rays Gain
2007 26 $383,400.00
-1.1 -$4.4 -$4.8
2008 27 $395,800.00
1.3 $5.9 $5.5
2009 28 $415,900.00
8.3 $37.1 $36.7
2010 29 $438,100.00
2.7 $10.7 $10.3

2011 30 $4,500,000.00



2012 31 $4,500,000.00



2013 32 $5,500,000.00



2014 33 *$7,000,000 $7M Team Option, $2.5M Buyout


2015 34 *$7,500,000 $7.5M Team Option, $500k Buyout



Career to date (may be incomplete) $1,633,200.00 Does not include future salaries

$47.67

(Stats courtesy of BaseballReference.com and Fangraphs.com.)

Even at the biggest end of his contract, Ben Zobrist's letdown 2010 season is still a bargain value. It's hard to admit it, but 2009 Zobrist may have been far more of an aberration than we expected. And though Zorilla may in fact be more of a striped polecat than a feared primate, he's still hella-valuable.

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