Ben Zobrist has worn many hats while in the Rays organization. He has hit all over the lineup and has played defense everywhere but pitcher and catcher. Yet, the one place where he has rarely appeared as at shortstop where he has not appeared since 2009 or started at since 2007.
Yesterday, that changed when Joe Maddon inserted Zobrist into the lineup at shortstop. In his pre-game radio chat, he told Dave Wills and Andy Freed that it was something they had covertly been working on for a little while and Matt Moore presented an excellent opportunity because of Moore's flyball tendencies.
As Tommy Rancel laid out in his most recent post at The Process Report, a roster decision is looming and it will come down to two player - Ryan Roberts or Sean Rodriguez. That The big question is: with the struggles the Rays have dealt with at shortstop all season, are there more opportunities for Zobrist to play shortstop the rest of this season? JC Mitchell took one look at it earlier today - here is another angle to consider.
The shortstop position has one that has gone through several versions in recent years. As bad as the team defense has felt this season, it was never as bad as the 2007 when the Rays infield was so bad that it helped produce the worst bullpen in the last 50 seasons. The next three seasons saw Jason Bartlett hold serve at the position whose perceived skill at the position had more to do with who he followed up at the position rather than his own skills. Since MVB's departure, the Rays have gone the triumvirate of Reid Brignac, Elliot Johnson, and Sean Rodriguez with the latter two owning the position this season.
Each of those three players each have their own faults. Rodriguez shows strong defensive abilities but to say he as struggled offensively would be putting it kindly. For a time, Elliot Johnson was one of the more productive hitters in the lineup but he has returned to more of his true talent level while his limited range and erratic arm in the field continue. Brignac is still stuck in AAA Durham and has been bypassed several times when the Rays had an open roster spot even when the left side of the infield had its defensive struggles.
As Rancel's post pointed out, if the roster move to bring back Scott comes down to Roberts or Rodriguez, the Rays need to decide which one is more replaceable. It is uncertain how much third base Evan Longoria will play this season but Ryan Roberts has certainly brought defensive stability to a position that has been a sore spot all throughout Longoria's absence. Meanwhile, Rodriguez has struggled all season despite tweaks to his batting stance and has seemingly lost his ability to produce against left-handed pitching to the point Elliot Johnson has seen starts in those situations who himself has issues against lefties.
The simple comment is to say Zobrist could start at shortstop when the flyball tendencies of Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson are on the mound, but there are potentially hidden opportunities to start him in favorable situations if the team is concerned about his range at shortstop. After making that simple comment in yesterday's game day thread, FreeZorilla suggested someone look into which pitchers produce the most groundballs to that side of the field.
Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I pulled a report for the Rays starting pitchers and every groundball that has been put into play to the shortstop zone as well as to the area between short and third and short and second. The results show 376 groundballs in play to those zones by the starting pitchers. The table below shows the raw totals for each starter, the number of groundballs in play per inning pitched, as well as the number of groundballs per nine innings:
By those numbers, if Maddon was comfortable using Zobrist with Moore on the mound, he could also do it with James Shield and Alex Cobb. Despite their overall high groundball rates, those two pitchers have less groundballs put in play to the shortstop area than Moore does. Thus, David Price would seemingly be the one pitcher that presents a bad matchup if the concern with Zobrist is his range on ground balls.
The pitching on the team has gotten better recently as the defense is doing much better than it was earlier this season. The .039 raise in team defensive efficiency currently puts the team at a higher rate over the last 30 days than they were for the entire 2011 season. Zobrist could be utilized even more at shortstop than initially realized.
In fact, if there is not a discernible difference in the ranges of Zobrist and Johnson, Zobrist could become the everyday shortstop. That would allow Matt Joyce to remain in the lineup against lefties and allow Johnson and Jeff Keppinger to work a rotation at second base or even Ryan Roberts on days when Longoria does feel up to playing the field.