The Early Season Struggles of Ben Zobrist

ST PETERSBURG, FL - APRIL 18: Outfielder Ben Zobrist #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays is congratulated after his home run against the Chicago White Sox during the game at Tropicana Field on April 18, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Everyone has a nemesis.

Batman has the Joker. The Hatfields have the McCoys. Maggie Simpson has Baby Gerald. When looking into the early season struggles of Ben Zobrist, it became abundantly clear who was his Lex Luthor: the changeup.

Going into last night's game Zobrist was hitting .179/.270/.411 with a K% of 28.6 and a significantly higher GB% (52.5) than LD% (10.0). Obviously, that needs to, and will, improve. If the Rays are going to succeed this season, they're going to need Zobrist to hit more like he did in 2009 than he did in a disappointing 2010. When looking at the Pitch F/X results so far this season, we see that teams are throwing Zobrist changeups 21.5% of the time and fastballs just 34.7%. Those numbers have been going in opposite directions since the beginning of the 2009 season.

Consider this chart:

FB% CH%
2009 44.1 16.3
2010 36.0 18.4
2011 34.7 21.5

While the 2011 numbers are based on a small sample that could easily be affected by the team's early schedule, there does seem to be a pattern forming. When you consider that Zobrist is whiffing on 18.5% of changeups thrown to him this season, it doesn't seem likely that teams are going to shy away from throwing them*. I don't like to take a batter's Pitch Type Value scores too seriously since the opposing defense plays such a large role in the outcome, but Zobrist's -6.1 wCH score in 2010 was especially bad. Going back to 2008, the first year FanGraphs starting tracking this statistic, Zobrist's -6.1 wCH is by far the worst of any Rays batter against changeups.

*Danks struck Zobrist out on five strange changeups in the 7th inning. Whether he feels more comfortable hitting opposite hand or not, Maddon should really try to get him to hit same-hand against pitchers with changeups like Danks.

It's been talked about how pitchers have practically begun throwing their first pitch down the middle in hopes of combating the Rays' patient approach and thus getting ahead in the count. To counter this, Joe Maddon has told hitters to be more aggressive early in the count. This strategey may be getting Zobrist in trouble in the early going. In 0-0 counts Zobrist has seen 22.2% changeups and has whiffed on an amazing 21.4% of them. He's looking for the fastball but is being frequently disappointed.

Also, it's not just his whiff rates against changeups that are on the rise. Zobrist's overall swinging strike percentage is at 10.4% which is up from his career mark of 6.3%. His contact rate has fallen 8% from his career average, so Zobrist is whiffing at more pitches and making much less contact than normal.

Should we expect Zobrist to keep striking out like he's Carlos Pena? No, he's made too much contact over his career to transform into that kind of a hitter. Will he need to make some adjustments and improve his line drive and contact rates for the Rays to be successful? Yes, he will. The best thing he could do is improve against the changeup and force opposing pitchers to throw him a fastball once in a while. As it stands right now, his kryptonite is getting the best of him.

All Pitch F/X data courtesy of FanGraphs and Texas Leaguers.

As a disclaimer, we're obviously looking at small sample sizes. That's all you have this early in the season. No definitive conclusions should be taken away from this analysis, but it should help shed light onto Zobrist's struggles thus far.

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