Measure it: Zobrist MLB's best
Ben Zobrist, best player in baseball.
Doesn’t sound right, does it? But according to baseball-reference.com, Zobrist is the major league leader in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) since 2009 — and in the Fangraphs.com’s version of WAR, he is second only to Miguel Cabrera during that time.
I know what you’re thinking — c’mon, no way. Zobrist, who turns 32 on May 26, is not a dominant player according to traditional metrics — he has never batted .300 in a season, never hit 30 homers, never driven in 100 runs.
Well, think again. And watch Zobrist carefully in any game. He will do something to try to help the Rays win, maybe something that not even WAR can measure.
“It goes well beyond WAR,” Rays manager Joe Maddon says. “It’s the entire person and player that makes him as good as he is.”
WAR, though, provides a starting point.
The metric, according to Fangraphs, is an “attempt by the sabermetric community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic.” Sean Forman, the founder of baseball-reference.com, has called it “a framework ... an estimate of a player’s overall value.”
WAR estimates the number of wins that a player provides over a minor league or waiver-wire “replacement,” taking into account offense, defense and baserunning. The defensive measure is adjusted according to the difficulty of the position. Zobrist’s durability — he has played in an average of 154 games the past four seasons — also helps his value.
So, while Zobrist might not hit like Cabrera or Albert Pujols, WAR reflects the strength of his all-around game.
“It’s a common thing across all sports: Players who do one thing very well are valued a lot more highly than players who do a lot of things pretty well,” Forman says. “Really for Zobrist, it’s that he does everything pretty well.
“A lot of his offensive value is based off walks, which are generally undervalued. He runs the bases very well. He rarely grounds into double plays. And pretty much all the defensive metrics agree that he’s a fantastic fielder. He can play shortstop in a pinch, but plays all over the field otherwise and generally does a very good job of it.”
“Add that all together, and it makes for a pretty valuable player.”
But is Zobrist the best player in the game since 2009? More valuable than Cabrera and Pujols during that time, not to mention Ryan Braun, Joey Votto and Robinson Cano?
“I think you’re undervaluing consistency and a broad ability, a broad list of talents that the player has,” Forman says. “It’s a lot easier to see a guy who had a couple of tremendous, superstar seasons and maybe dropped off further than Zobrist did in an off year, and figure, ‘Well, that player is better. If I’m picking a team, I want that guy playing for me because he had a superstar season.’ People undervalue Zobrist’s consistency year after year and just don’t give that the value that it deserves.”
Zobrist, for his part, says that he can’t tell you what goes into WAR. He knows of his high ranking only because family and friends tell him about it. Like most players, he isn’t especially concerned with statistics. He’s only trying to be the best he can be.
“I might have a great game hitting, but if I’m not having a great game fielding, if I feel like I let a guy get an extra base that I could have stopped, that’s something I’ve got to do better, got to get better at,” Zobrist says.
“Or if I could have taken an extra base on a particular hit, I always try to push myself to do the little things, take the edge — wherever the edge is, I want to find a way to get it. I think those little inches count when it comes to the end of the game.”
The funny thing is, Zobrist as a minor-leaguer did not envision becoming the player that he is today. He did not envision hitting for such power. He did not envision playing every day at multiple positions.
Like his success in WAR, it just sort of happened.
Not that Zobrist lacked a plan. In fact, he changed his hitting approach after the 2007 season in a way that actually ran counter to sabermetric doctrine.
At the time, his career hung in the balance.
Zobrist was the Astros’ sixth-round pick in '04, a shortstop who was drafted as a senior out of Dallas Baptist University. He joined the Rays as part of a trade for infielder/outfielder Aubrey Huff on July 12, 2006, in Andrew Friedman’s first season as general manager.
“In the minor leagues, previous to 2008, I took a lot of pitches. I prided myself on on-base percentage. I made sure that I made the pitcher work,” Zobrist says.
“But as I spent more time in the major leagues, I realized if you get behind in the count, the pitchers are going to go to their nasty stuff, hit the corners. I started becoming more aggressive, not trying to walk as much, taking a walk if they’ll give it to me, but being aggressive on the pitch that I wanted.”
As it turned out, Zobrist still drew his walks. But thanks to another adjustment, he transformed himself as a hitter.
“I was kind of a slap hitter, trying to get base hits, hit line drives, stay below a certain trajectory with my ball,” Zobrist recalls. “I decided, ‘If I’m going to make contact, especially when I come off the bench as a pinch-hitter, I want the option to drive the ball and make an impact with one swing.’
“So, I changed the trajectory of my swing a little bit, which changed the trajectory of the ball. The ball started jumping. When I came to spring training, I was a different hitter. I was hitting home runs in batting practice, which I had never really done much before.”
Here are Zobrist’s combined home-run totals from the minors and majors from 2004 to ’07: 4, 5, 5, 8.
Here are his home-run totals from ’09 to ’12: 27, 10, 20, 20.
Zobrist also drew the most walks in the AL during that latter span and led the majors in combined doubles (143) and triples (22).
Yet, his hitting wasn’t all that he improved.
Zobrist says the Rays encouraged him to be a more aggressive baserunner, “playing all-out and going for your best,” not worrying about mistakes. They also started him playing him all over the field, at every position but pitcher and catcher.
Since '08, Zobrist has started 299 games at second, 214 games in right, 86 at shortstop, 17 in center, 11 at first, 10 in left and four at third.
“I did the utility thing at first out of necessity to find a place on the team,” Zobrist says. “They didn’t expect what they got out of the deal, either. They weren’t expecting me to play every day as a utility guy when they first put me in that position.
“It just so happened when they put me there that I was able to go to these different positions and make the adjustments quickly. And when the bat started coming around, they were like, ‘This could be really valuable. We’re going to let you keep playing different positions. But you’re going to start playing every day.’”
With that, an unlikely star was born.
It shouldn’t surprising that the Rays developed the ultimate “WAR-rior.” Actually they’ve got two — third baseman Evan Longoria ranks third in Fangraphs’ WAR and sixth in baseball-reference’s version since '09, even though he has missed 133 games due to injuries during that span (the two sites use different formulas to determine their respective ratings).
The Rays’ $57.9 million payroll ranks 28th in the majors, according to USA Today, ahead of only the Marlins and Astros. Unable to buy the best pitchers or best hitters, Tampa Bay needs its players to be as well-rounded as possible.
“We know we have to have that kind of player to win,” Maddon says. “I’ve talked about the liberal-arts approach to playing baseball. We want them to be not just specialists in one or two areas. We want them to play the entire game.”
Zobrist does that at a ridiculously low price — he is in the final year of a four-year, $18 million contract, and the Rays can retain him on a $7 million option for 2014 and a $7.5 million option for ’15.
Yet, not all of his contributions show up in the boxscore, much less in the complex formulas used to determine WAR.
“If you watch him in pregame, he’s always working on something,” Maddon says. “He always practices, and practices to do it perfectly, whether it’s going to the bag at second base to apply a tag or anything else.
“Watch him in the on-deck circle, the kind of swings that he takes. Watch him working in the outfield, how he moves his feet all the time. He’s always practicing to do things right. That carries over to his game. That’s what you’re seeing with him as a baseball player, this desire to do everything absolutely correct.
“And beyond that, there’s a teamwork component to this guy. You have players that will balk at be asked to do different things, especially after they’ve been successful. This guy does not balk at anything.”
There also is a calmness about Zobrist, a certain poise. Just Monday night, he was the victim of one of the worst calls you will ever see, a called third strike on a two-out, 3-2 curveball in the ninth inning of a one-run loss to the Rangers. Yet, in Maddon’s view, “He handled it probably better than most players can ever dream of.”
It all adds up, intangibles included.
Ten years ago, we would not have appreciated Zobrist the way we do today. With help from WAR, we can better understand his value, knowing all those little inches count.