With 41 victories the Rays enter play today with the 3rd highest win total in the American League. The tough reality, though, is that it is also only the 3rd highest total in the American League East. The Rays are only 3.5 games out of 1st place and 3 games off of the early Wild Card lead. That 3.5 number will appear again in this article and is one of the main reasons why the Rays are contending this year despite an offense that boasts the 4th lowest wOBA in the AL.
The Rays have been winning the majority of their games this season largely thanks to pitching and defense. The team currently has the 5th best staff ERA in the AL and they have allowed the 2nd fewest runs in the league. The pitching has been heavily aided by the great team defense which has been the best in the league with a UZR of +27.1. The Los Angeles Angels have the 2nd best UZR with a distant +18.8. The best of the bunch are Evan Longoria, who in only 389 innings, is tied for the team lead with +7.2. He is tied with non other than the Rays team MVP Ben Zobrist.
There are a lot of Rays fans that will fight me on this and claim Matt Joyce is the team MVP this year. There is no doubting that Joyce is having a fantastic season, hitting .309/.372/.534 and leading the team with a wOBA of .388 and wRC+ of 150. His production has been worth an All-Star caliber level of 2.4 fWAR but Zobrist has that beat by more than one win and stands alone as team MVP.
Zobrist leads the team in almost every running stat and ranks near the top, or at the top, in some rate stats. Take a look at his stats and where they rank on the team (for players with at least 100 plate appearances):
If Runs and RBI are your thing then I will gladly tell you that he also leads the team in each of those categories. He also ranks 4th on the team in batting average, 2nd in ISO, and has only been caught stealing once. One could argue that David Price or James Shields have been the team MVP at this point in the season but both fall short of the fWAR total that Zobrist has put together and with offense being at a 20 year low around the league it's hard to look at what Zobrist has done as the primary second baseman and not expect his fWAR to be the highest on the team and tied for the 10th highest total in the Majors and tied for the highest among all Major League second basemen.
I am not sure what it is about Zobrist that gets him so little attention. Maybe we have been so caught up watching Joyce breakout this season or watching "Complete Game James" pitch. Or maybe our vision has been clouded because we spend too much time debating on whether the production from Casey Kotchman will continue or not. I do not know the answer to why Zobrist gets little love but one thing is for sure, Ben Zobrist has been the best player on the Tampa Bay Rays so far this season.