Ben Zobrist Day: The Versatility | The Process Report

Ben Zobrist Day: The Versatility

Ben Zobrist did something in 2012 that no other player has ever done in a single major league season. In comparison to some other noteworthy performances last season, this thing he did was far too specific to become the stuff of legend. It was however perhaps the most Ben Zobrist thing he could have done: Zobrist made at least 46 appearances each at two infield positions and one outfield position. This particular feat may not live on in baseball or even Tampa Bay lore, but it does speak to arguably Zobrist’s most recognizable skill—his defensive versatility.

Cut the number of games in half to 23 and you get a far more populous if anonymous list—a Chico Salmon here, a Bob Unglaub there, and of course Possum Whitted. Narrow those results down further to the positions Zobrist played in 2012 (second, shortstop and right field), and you get a six-player sample made up almost entirely of the type of player usually known for defensive versatility. Utility might be a useful skill on defense, but it’s a bit of a slur on offense.

Ben Zobrist is not however a typical utility player. He hit 20 home runs in 2012—the other five players hit a combined 23. Based on Fangraph’s wRC+ statistic only Zobrist and Jose Oquendo (1987) had above-average offensive seasons (Zobrist at 137, Oquendo at 107). Zobrist is also a full three inches taller than the next tallest player.

Though Zobrist broke into the big leagues as a shortstop, his stint there last season was unusual for his overall career. Nevertheless playing as many games as he has at second base and an outfield position is still unusual—only nine other players can say the same.

The ability to create offense does not set Zobrist apart as much this time, not with names like Pete Rose and Alfonso Soriano also on the list. Still Zobrist does have the potential to separate himself even from those latter players in another way, by combining utility with age.

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At age 32, Zobrist is still playing what should be considered above-average defense at second base. Soriano and Rose followed much more typical career progressions—playing the infield at an early age, then shifting to the less demanding outfield. For games played at second after age 32, Zobrist should overtake all but Tony Phillips by sometime next season, assuming he stays healthy and the Rays infield does not suffer drastic changes.

And now we’re left considering these two atypical utility men, Ben Zobrist and Tony Phillips. Do you remember when a 51-year old Phillips was playing for the Yuma Scorpions and beat up opposing manager Mike Marshall? In The Hall of Nearly Great, Jason Wojciechowski identified that kind of trouble as a reason Phillips never received the acclaim he deserved.

Zobrist certainly is not being held back by a troubled reputation, but he has other advantages over Phillips. Wojciechowski also suggests that Phillips’ skill set and frequent changing of teams further stunted his fame. While Zobrist shares some of Phillips skills, he plays in an era when on-base percentage is far more appreciated—Zobrist already has more career MVP votes.

And while Phillips never became defined by one uniform, Zobrist has become perhaps the most Rays player possible. The Rays’ tireless drive to extract every possible advantage from its roster has allowed Zobrist to maximize his versatility. It’s hard to imagine the Rays without Zobrist’s name somewhere and everywhere in the lineup.



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