Ben Zobrist: MVP (Most Versatile Player)

Take a look at Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement leader board for position players since 2010 and you’ll notice plenty of familiar suspects among the top 10. There’s Miguel Cabrera sitting on top of the pile, followed closely by Robinson Cano and Joey VottoAndrew McCutchen and his long flowing locks sit in the middle, as do a pair of popular AL 3rd basemen. Baseball’s next legend Mike Trout sits near the bottom of the list of 10, despite having spent what equates to an entire season in the minors. Suspended slugger Ryan Braun rounds out the bottom of the group. Tucked in among those perennial All-Stars and highlight-making machines is one of the last guys you would ever suspect: Ben Zobrist.

The Rays’ super-utility All-Star has carved out a highly valuable, highly important role on Joe Maddon’s roster by acting as the franchise’s Swiss army knife. Do you need someone to cover 3rd base in order to give Evan Longoria a day off? Call on Zobrist. Do you need a right fielder until Wil Myers is good and ready for the big leagues? Zobrist. How about a middle infielder who can make all the plays? Zobrist, Zobrist, Zobrist. He affords Joe Maddon a level of flexibility that few other players in baseball history can match and he’s been doing it for years now.

Look at how many games Zobrist has spent playing different positions since his Major League debut in 2006:

First Base: 17
Second Base: 465
Third Base: 4
Shortstop: 197
Left Field: 26
Center Field: 312
Right Field: 28

If you run a quick search through the trusty ole’ Play Index over at Baseball-Reference, you’ll find that there have been only five other players in baseball history with at least 1 full season worth of games at second base, shortstop, and one of the outfield spots: Alan BannisterTony PhillipsWoodie HeldDerrel Thomas, and Jimmy Johnston.

And while most of that group, apart from Phillips, struggled with the bat, that’s no issue for the patient and powerful Zobrist. Among players with at least 1500 at-bats since 2009 Zobrist ranks 37th in baseball with a 125 OPS+, which ties him with Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard and puts him ahead of the likes of Alex RodriguezChase Utley, and Dustin Pedroia among others. His walk rate is among the top 20 in baseball since 2009, ahead of the feared David Ortiz, and Zobrist is one of only 10 players in baseball over the same time span to steal at least 80 bags and hit at least 80 homers.

Zobrist has been flashing the leather like an All-Star as well. According to Fangraphs, only Dustin Pedroia and Clint Barmes have accumulated more value with their gloves than Zobrist has since 2009. Baseball-Reference is in agreement as well, ranking Zobrist 7th in baseball in defensive WAR at 8.7.

If you watch Ben Zobrist play, it quickly becomes apparent why he’s so good in the field, no matter where he’s placed. Zobrist is no slouch in the infield either. He spent most of his time in the minor leagues at shortstop and only began to move around the infield as a way to gain some extra playing time. He usually brings 3 to 5 gloves — a 1st base mitt, a middle infield glove or two, a glove with a little more webbing for 3rd, and one for the outfield — to the ball park each day, never knowing where he’ll play in Maddon’s ever-changing lineup.

Zobrist exhibits plus range in the infield and his ability to switch his arm slot back and forth as he switches positions is second to none. As an infielder Zobrist is able to whip off those quick release, sidearm tosses that are so crucial to nabbing runners at 1st. When Zobrist is in the outfield he has the ability to really stretch out his throwing motion, which allows him to get more power on his throws, which can help cut down any would be base runners.

Against the Orioles on September 23rd, in a game the Rays had to win, Zobrist was given only his 2nd start of the year and he put that arm strength on display. Zobrist nabbed Alexi Casilla at the plate in the 6th inning to hold the Orioles lead to 2 runs and then in the top of the 8th, with the game knotted up at 4, the Rays utility superstar gunned down Matt Wieters, who was looking to stretch a double into a triple. Both plays by Zobrist took runs off the board and got the Rays a crucial win over a playoff competitor. In fact, in the words of Joe Maddon, Ben Zobrist playing left field won today’s game. Zo’s defense won today’s game. Period.”

Ben Zobrist, more than any other player, perhaps in the history of baseball, has come to define what it means to be an ideal utility player. His versatility and willingness to do anything to help the team win have made #18 the quintessential Rays player and if he can string together another 5 good-to-great years to match his last 6, he just might make his way into Cooperstown.

Big thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference for the statistical help!

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10 Comments on "Ben Zobrist: MVP (Most Versatile Player)"

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Doug
Editor
The last two seasons, Zobrist has played at least 20 games at each of SS, 2B and RF. Only one other player has done that even once – Jose Oquendo in 1987. In 2012, he played at least 45 games at each of those positions, the most for any combination of 2 infield and 1 outfield positions. Here are the highest number of games played for each of 3 positions, in various combinations. 2B, SS, LF – 42, Mariano Duncan 1992 2B, SS, CF – 26, Derrel Thomas 1977 2B, SS, 3B – 41, Marco Scutaro 2008 2B, 3B, 1B… Read more »
bstar
Guest
The NL Swiss Army Knife award might go to Martin Prado. Not this year so much, as he’s manned 3B for the D-Backs almost the entire season. He’s not quite as versatile and certainly not as good as Zobrist, but his ability to toggle back and forth between the outfield and infield really helped the Braves when Prado wore that uniform. Here’s his career games played at different positions along with the corresponding DRS defensive number: 3B – 303 G, +24 DRS LF – 251 G, +20 DRS 2B – 241 G, -5 DRS 1B – 56 G, +1 DRS… Read more »
Voomo Zanzibar
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In 1984, Phillips played

91 games at SS and
90 games at 2B

PaulE
Guest
Cooperstown? Wow! You’re talking about the same place that Whitaker and Trammell, Grich and various others who accomplished far more than defense-centric WAR totals couldn’t get into? I dunno. Longoria? Yeah, if he stays healthy. Zobrist will have to do something like a couple of 30 homer seasons, .300 batting average seasons…..for crissakes, is he a better ball player or did he have a better career than Chase Utley? Pete Rose was a versatile player- he just didn’t jump around position to position mid- game or mid-season. He played 2b, RF, LF, 3b, and 1b with some degree of success… Read more »
Bryan O'Connor
Editor

I agree that the current electorate won’t let Zobrist anywhere near Cooperstown, but Neal’s point is that he’s been at least as valuable as several players who will get the call someday.

I think I’m ok with this disconnect between value and stardom- reserve Cooperstown for guys who hit 450-foot homers or played third base like Adrian Beltre every day. That said, I wouldn’t argue against Zobrist for the Hall.

Doug
Guest
To that point, in my list @1, there only 2 HOFers represented, including one who is usually cited as being among the weakest selections, and who owes his induction to a fortuitously timed death. And, there is one other who is virtually certain of induction. For most players who are played at different positions on a regular basis, it’s because they’re probably not good enough that you would want them playing everyday at the same position. But they are good enough that you can economize on filling your roster spots and can therefore afford to carry (for example) a pinch-hitting… Read more »
no statistician but
Guest

The trick here is simply that Joe Maddon has played Zobrist all over, not that Zobrist is the mosty versatile. Think Jackie Robinson, Gil McDougald, etc.

mosc
Guest

I fully agree with this. Most players grow up shifting positions either in high school or in the minors. You may have your “I’ve only ever played shortstop/center field/first base/catcher” guys once in a while but nearly everybody else is going to be flexible and even teaching some of those SS/CF guys how to play other positions adds underrated value. Positional consistency does allow for specialization but that can be a marginal improvement compared to withstanding an injury, platooning, cycling days off, etc.

Tubbs
Guest

Thanks for this article. It’s nice to see Zobrist get some attention. It’s too bad Zobrist wasn’t a full time starter until he was 28. Zobrist is a long shot for the HOF but who knows, a lot of younger/saber friendly writers will have votes by then.

Fireworks
Guest

Zobrist is fantastically underrated. Love him and love yet another example of Maddon’s forward-thinking as a manager.

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