For some reason I want to keep calling Zobrist “ZoJu.” I don’t know why. He’s not Zobrist Jr. I’m fucked up. But “Zobes” is still pretty cool to go with. If this were hockey he’s be “Zobey.” Having a Z in your last name is pretty boss.
Anyway, we’ve come to the last of them. With the furor over Jason Heyward and the sudden shock of Dexter Fowler, I know I’d forgotten that the Sabermetric darling was on the Cubs as well. Any other year that’s a signing by itself you’d get pretty excited about. Now it’s just like… in the background. That’s pretty awesome. Anyway, let’s look at what the Cubs might be getting out of the kinda Jesus-y 2nd sacker.
Ben Zobrist’s 2015
535 PA/13 HR/56 RBI/11.6 BB%/10.5 K%/.173 ISO/.288 BABIP/.276 AVG/.359 OBP/.450 SLG/.349 wOBA/123 wRC+/2.1 WAR
There was some concern about handing a 35-year-old a three year deal, and trading away a player who was just 26 to open up a spot for him. Some of those fears can be allayed by what Zobrist put up last year, though the number of teams that have been burned by a “free agent year” is innumerable.
Zobrist’s OBP has almost been metronomical at a .355 rate for his career, and not deviating from that the past three years by more than three or four points. 2012 saw a spike to .377 but the two before that were right on line with his career averages. The ability to take walks and not strikeout doesn’t really go away unless the bat really slows. Considering that Zobrist’s whiff rate on fastballs hasn’t changed in years, it doesn’t look like his bat has slowed at all.
And that’s Zobrist’s true talent, is that he is one of the best contact hitters in the game, finishing 11th last year in that category and his past three years are his highest contact-rate seasons. He also had the eight-lowest rate of swinging at pitches outside of the zone, which is obviously a big boon to his overall contact rate. This is the marked difference between him and Starlin Castro, as the Cubs plug in a player with obscene plate discipline on a lineup that still doesn’t have a huge amount of it. Combing him with Heyward really ups that category by a ton.
If there’s one warning sign it was Zobrist’s defense last year at 2nd. FanGraphs had him at a -6.7 UZR and a -13.3 UZR/150. It’s hard to argue that in his mid-30s that’s going to get better. But Zobrist had a spike, or should we say a crater, like this before in 2012 and bounced back up the same amount on the positive side the next two years. So it could just be a one-year outlier.
Zobrist’s real value, at least in Tampa all those years with Maddon, was that he could play everywhere. It’s not really certain that he’s going to be needed to do that on Addison. He’ll give Rizzo the occasional day off at 1st, but not enough to make a real impact. The Cubs seem covered in the outfield, though he can play left and right. Baez, for the eight minutes he’s going to be healthy, would seem to be first call at short and third when a spot start is needed there. So you lose some of Zobrist’s value when you’re not moving him all over the field. What he is though is more excellent injury insurance, adding to the Cubs depth even though they may only have four bench players. Extra inning games with him and Baez flipping everywhere are going to be kind of a blast.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Zobrist get something of a power surge, though not anything that’s going to cause rumbles in the concrete. He played in two of the worst home run parks last year in Oakland and KC, and Wrigley is a huge step up from those for players that want to jog around the bases every so often. He’s managed 20 homers in a season three times in Tampa, and certainly can make a run at that again.
Much like Heyward, Zobrist’s floor is well established. You know what the baseline is here, so even if you get that you have a player who’s going to be on base a lot, take a professional AB every time, and most likely be more than solid if not more in the field. He’s a known, and the Cubs as much as we’d like to think they do, thanks to the wealth of players at the very beginnings of their career, don’t have a lot of knowns in the lineup. “Won’t let you down” isn’t all that exciting, but it is necessary.
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