ST. PETERSBURG, FL - JULY 3: Infielder Ben Zobrist #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays dives for a ground ball against the St. Louis Cardinals July 3, 2011 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Zobrist threw the runner out and the Rays won 8 - 3. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
I was excited when I saw a tweet by the Tampa Bay Rays manager yesterday proclaiming that Ben Zobrist was going to get the start at shortstop. I quickly retweeted it and tweeted the info myself; retweeting it alone was not enough for this excited fan.
Ben Zobrist had not played a single inning at shortstop since 2009 when he logged a mere 62 innings at the position and had a pathetic RZR of .615 in that small sample size. But it did not take a scout to tell you that he did not belong at the position and it was the last time we saw Zobrist there...until yesterday.
The three players most commonly seen playing shortstop for the Rays this season were Elliot Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, and Reid Brignac. The threesome has combined to hit .224/.288/.325 with a .276 wOBA and 74 wRC+. If that was not bad enough they have combined for a -6.5 UZR during their time at the position and that is helped by the +1.0 UZR that Brignac posted while with the parent club.
Ben Zobrist may not be able to post a much better UZR but in the right situations and with Joe Maddon's ability to position players it may not be a bad idea for Maddon to start Zobrist at short a few times per week.
The Tampa Bay Rays currently sport two starting pitchers with a groundball rate that is below 40%. Jeremy Hellickson has been rockin' a 39.8% ground ball rate while Matt Moore is just under him at 39.4%. These are only rates on batted balls. Hellickson has a K% of 15.5% and Moore has a K% of 22.2%.
In Zobrist's seven innings at short yesterday he only fielded two balls and made both plays. Moore allowed a total of five ground balls in the game. Hellickson has allowed eight or less groundballs in 16 of his 20 starts and Moore has done the same in 18 of his 22 starts.
The Rays even have a few relievers with low ground ball rates that have logged nearly 50 innings each. Joel Peralta is sporting a 28.6% rate with a 33.5% K-rate and Wade Davis has a 35.4% rate with a 27.7% K-rate.
Playing Zobrist at shortstop when the Rays start their two fly ball pitchers is one way to improve the offense and, in all honesty, it may not hurt the defense all that much either given the poor play the Rays have already fielded at the position.
Jeremy Hellickson pitches tonight against the Minnesota Twins but with the Twins having the highest ground ball rate in the Majors I could see Maddon not playing Zobrist at shortstop especially with the Twins likely having six left-handed hitters in to face Hellickson I could make the argument that Zobrist is needed at second base in this game.
But Matt Moore's next start is against the Seattle Mariners who have the sixth lowest ground ball rate in the Majors and I find no reason why Maddon should not let Zobrist play more games at short in situations like this.
With five of the six lowest ground ball rates coming from teams in the American League (excluding the Rays) I would love to see Zobrist playing more games at shortstop this season to improve the overall offense especially if Hellickson or Moore are pitching in those games.