I can see your eyes rolling as we announce yet another “next Ben Zobrist”. It has, after all, become an almost laughably predictable cliché to anoint any guy who plays more than one position without embarrassment the next Ben Zobrist. Usually it turns out said player can’t compare to a guy who hit like a top to middle of the order player while playing good to great defense almost anywhere he was asked. There’s a reason Zobrist is special.
But please bear with me for a few minutes as I argue that just maybe the Rays have found another guy in that Zobrist mold. And that guy is Joey Wendle.
Both players struggled to get regular opportunities.
Going back to 2008 Zobrist was a guy had not impressed during his few shots in the majors. Playing bit parts in 2006 and 2007 he had 303 plate appearances and hit .200/.234/.275 for a 27 wRC+. At age 27, Zobrist looked more like a DFA candidate than a potential All Star.
In 2008 he spent the first half of the season up and down and ended up becoming a semi-regular in August. Zobrist put up a .265/.339/.505 line and put up a 123 wRC+ over the course of 227 plate appearances.
Joey Wendle turned 28 at the end of spring training and still had rookie status. He never really got his major league opportunity and was traded away by the Oakland Athletics for a PTBNL that ended up being catcher Jonah Heim.
In 116 plate appearances Wendle hit .266/.305/.339 and put up a 74 wRC+ coming into 2018.
In the first half of 2018 Wendle hit .283/.331/.394 in 296 plate appearances including a rough stretch between May-June where he had to make adjustments.
In the second half Wendle broke out.
2008 Zobrist vs 2nd Half Wendle
Zobrist and Wendle are two players figured it out as older, non-established major leaguers.
Do they have more in common than their long road to regular major league playing time?
Zobrist is a pull hitter that put the ball in the air much more than Wendle does, so Zobrist will post higher ISO numbers while also putting up much lower batting averages. Zobrist also has a better walk rate.
The real question here is Wendle’s much improved strikeout rate. Walk and strikeout rates are one of the fastest numbers to stabilize, so I believe he has made meaningful improvements.
In the second half Wendle was tied for tenth most productive batter with 2.4 fWAR behind only Christian Yelich, Matt Chapman, Mookie Betts, Justin Turner, Ronald Acuna Jr., Anthony Rendon, Alex Bregman, Tommy Pham, and Jeff McNiel.
Just like Zobrist, Wendle’s primary position is second base. Wendle is a very good defender. His +5 DRS and +4.3 UZR (10.7 UZR/150) over 771.1 innings are comparable to Zobrist’s numbers at the position. Wendle has also seen time at third base, shortstop, right field, and left field just like Zobrist. Zobrist has been a very good outfield defender; it’s not clear whether Wendle will be similarly effective there.
In 2009 Zobrist went off for his career year. He launched 27 homers and hit for average. His .297/.405/.543 line and 152 wRC+ put Zobrist on the map as a star and was a legitimate MVP candidate with his 8.2 fWAR outburst.
Zobrist never replicated his 2009, but has been a constantly productive MLB player since.
Ben Zobrist 2010-2014
This is what Zobrist compiled during his age 29-33 seasons. He put up 24.7 fWAR over five seasons. Wendle just so happens to turn 29 just before the 2019 season begins.
This is what I think Wendle could replicate. I don’t expect Wendle to match the walk rate, but if he can maintain an 8% walk rate and 15% strikeout rate he can be worth that offensively. A .154 ISO also isn’t unrealistic. A 120 wRC+ is obtainable.
Wendle will have to continue his line drive approach that sprays balls all over the field to maintain a BABIP in the .350 ballpark as he did this year.
Going into spring training I didn’t believe Joey Wendle was a major league regular. I was wrong. I believe he’s a three win player heading into 2019 with the upside of a five win player if he keeps most of the gains he made in the second half.
Wendle has a four win season in the bag with a 3.7 fWAR, 4.2 rWAR, and 4.3 WARP in 2018. It’s is possible this is Wendle’s career season, but I’m optimistic more is to come.
Wendle might not become Zobrist 2.0, but being Joey Wendle is pretty good.