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Rays 2013 Shortstop: Ben Zobrist?


On August 9th the Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon turned in his lineup card against the Toronto Blue Jays and there was a something different about it.

Yes, Joe Maddon tinkers with his lineup and there is always something to be said about a lineup card that he turns in but this was probably the most shocking one he has ever turned in, even more shocking that seeing a lineup of left-handers against a left-handed pitcher or right-handers against a right-handed pitcher. Joe Maddon had Ben Zobrist at the shortstop position.

This was shocking for a few reasons. One reason was that Zobrist had not played the position since 2009 when he logged a total of 62 innings at shortstop. It was also shocking because Zobrist, before this year, had a -7.0 UZR in 1020.2 innings at the position. And, for me, the most shocking reason was because Zobrist was having his worst defensive season at second base with a -3.4 UZR after a career +21.3 UZR in 2185 career innings at the keystone position.

But, the mad scientist had his reasons for playing Zobrist at shortstop and who was I to argue with him. Actually, I was very excited to see it since it put our best offensive lineup on the field. But how has Zobrist faired as a shortstop since taking over the position two weeks ago? Let's take a look.

From the eye test, Zobrist has looked like a decent shortstop. He has not looked like one that will win a Gold Glove (although with the way they vote on that awards it would not surprise me to see him win it this year) but more of a sure-handed shortstop who will not make mistakes but not reach too many balls hit out of his zone.

If we look at his UZR metrics we get pretty much what the eye sees. In a small sample-sized 11 games and 82 innings Zobrist has a -0.5 UZR and has made two out-of-zone- plays while only committing one error. His RZR of .771 is below the league average of .807 but above the Rays team average of .732 which is dead last in the league. But a UZR of -0.5 is hardly anything to worry about, especially in a small sample size. If he continues this pace he will post a -6.9 UZR in 150 games.

If we look at his Total Zone Rating numbers we get a little bit of a different story. Coming into this season Zobrist had an Rtot of -16 in 1020.2 innings at shortstop. But this year, again in a small sample, he has a +2 Rtot. His Rtot over a full season would be +25. Again, this is why playing with small sample sizes is dangerous. His fielding percentage of .976 is almost exactly the league average of .977 and his RF/9 is 4.50 with the league average being 4.51. Zobrist's Rdrs has him at 0 defensive runs saved.

I am playing with small sample sizes but what I see out of Zobrist and what the small sampling of numbers are suggesting is that Zobrist could be a neutral defensive shortstop. Even if he is slightly below that his bat easily makes up for the lost value since the bar is set so low for bats at the position.

In fact, Zobrist's 128 wRC+ would top any shortstop in the Majors with Derek Jeter's 122 wRC+ coming in second place paired with a UZR of -13.6 and Rtot of -13. There are only six other shortstops outside of Jeter with a wRC+ of 100 or better this year. The bar is very low as a hitter for the position and the Rays are not a team that can afford to get one in the free agent market.

Sadly, the sample size that we have on Zobrist for this season is far too small to jump to any conclusions but if he continues to play shortstop at his current rate the Rays may just have their 2013 starting shortstop already under contract.