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 Votto. Andrew 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:
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 Bannister, Tony Phillips, Woodie Held, Derrel 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 Rodriguez, Chase 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!