Ben Zobrist is a great player. When people wonder how the Rays keep winning, and think that Tampa Bay just doesn't have the talent to compete, there are a number of points you should make to them. The pitching is spectacular, the defense is good and data-aided, Evan Longoria might be the best player in the game when healthy. Somewhere on that list, though, has to be the fact that the Rays are more talented than the doubter believes. I bet he's forgetting about Ben Zobrist, who is also one of the best players in the game.
In 2012, the Rays fell victim to some well documented injury problems in their infield. They were not helped when Sean Rodriguez, their opening day shortstop had an inverse career year. In a desperate attempt to stem the bleeding, Andrew Friedman acquired Ryan Roberts to be the everyday second baseman, and gave Zobrist a try at his position of origin, shortstop.
Zobrist did very well. He might not have great range for a shortstop, but he has good enough range. His soft hands, smooth footwork, and accurate arm make up for it. UZR had him just slightly above average over all, in 392.0 innings. On offense, Zobrist hit .270/.377/.471, for a 137 wRC+, 20th among all major league players (first among qualified shortstops). Zobrist was good. I'm not going to bore you by telling you that any more. I'm going to bore you by playing mathematical "what if."
What if Zobrist played shortstop all season long? What if he played shortstop in previous seasons? How would people like villain number one for the "WAR overrates second basemen lobby" then?
A WAR calculation (I'm using fWAR) consists of batting, base running, fielding, replacement, and positional components. Let us assume that his batting and base running will remain constant no matter where Zorilla plays. If we also assume that his playing time would remain constant, we can hold the replacement adjustment constant as well. That just gives fielding and positional adjustments.
The shortstop positional adjustment is +7.5 per 162 games (second base is +2.5 and right field is -7.5). That's easy enough. Thank you, Tango.
Defense is a bit more difficult. Zobrist hasn't played enough shortstop for UZR numbers to be reliable. He has played a fair amount of second base, though, so let's start there. In 2012, UZR rated Zobrist at -14.1 UZR/150 ( only 408 innings), but previously, it's loved him. In 2011, he was at 10.3 UZR/150, in 2009 at 11.4 UZR/150, and in 2009, 23.9 UZR/150. Altogether, that puts his career rate at second base to be 11.0 UZR/150.
What does that tell us? Well, those positional adjustments we talked about earlier are calculated based on how players move between positions. Of course it's not perfect, but it's showing difficulty based on real life moves around the diamond. So, putting that 11 runs saved in terms of 162 games, we get 11.88 runs saved. The difference between the positional adjustment for shortstop and second base is 5 runs per 162, so if I take that away, we have Zobrist at 6.88 per 162. Now, I'll knock off a run and a half for whatever skepticism people may have about this methodology and possible biases affecting Tango's calculations, and another run and a half for Zobrist's aging, and we'll have 3.88 runs saved per 162 games at shortstop. Hey look, if we scale that back to 150 games, we get 3.5 runs saved, which is pretty close to the 2.8 runs saved UZR actually recorded for him this season.
So, now the fun part. Let's apply our numbers to his actual season. In 2012, Zobrist played 157 games. If he played them all at shortstop, that would mean a positional adjustment of +7.2 and a defensive adjustment of +3.8 runs. That gives us 6.1 fWAR. Now, I guess that's a slight improvement over his 5.9 fWAR that he actually posted. It makes him the best shortstop in the league and the 15th best player in the league over all. What if we apply those numbers instead to his 2009 season? That's 7.3 fWAR, worse than his actual 8.7 fWAR.
So what have we learned in this thought experiment (and this season)? Ben Zobrist can play shortstop. It doesn't make him a better player, unless you attribute value to being able to play wherever your team needs you. It does makes him the best shortstop in baseball though, because he's already fantastic, wherever the Rays stash him.