The Rays’ story early this year centered on their slow start. Key cogs to the machine weren’t running properly, and one of the most glaring malfunctions was super utility man Ben Zobrist. As someone who could play any infield or outfield position well, the man they call “Zorilla” had reached or exceeded 5.4 fWAR four of the last five seasons. His monstrous production earned him the above nickname, as well as annual awards for most underrated player. Zobrist was undoubtedly one of the core pieces of a Rays franchise that shocked fans and pundits year after year, by competing as a small budget team against the mammoth salaries of the Red Sox and Yankees.
His slow start to 2014 worried most, as it couldn’t be written off the same way that Evan Longoria‘s down year has been. Zobrist recently turned 33 years old, an age where we see sharp production fallout. His fielding and baserunning oriented approach can only last as long as his body allows, and it seemed that his body just didn’t have the magic it once did. His first half stats weren’t terrible, but nowhere near the level we expect from him: 266/352/401 with a 118 wRC+. His decline sparked trade rumors, linking him to teams like the Giants and Reds, and even a false rumor on deadline day that said he was going to the Pirates.
But earlier in July, a change was brewing inside Ben Zobrist (and it wasn’t just the pre-game burrito). He made some alterations to his approach, and suddenly has found himself back on the vintage ’09 levels of Zorilla. He’s tearing the cover off the ball so far in the second half, to a tune of 359/446/562 and a 190 wRC+. An always patient hitter, he took his mindset at the plate to an extreme. In turn he’s found himself back as the leading candidate for yet another 50 articles about how underrated he is.
When players struggle at the dish, we often see them overcompensate by swinging more. This usually expounds the problem, making the player even worse than before. But Ben Zobrist has never been a player to jump early in the count. He’s always patient, never expanding his strike zone. In the first half of the 2014 season he had one of the best chase rates (meaning lower) in the majors at just 21.1%. In the second half, over the last two months he’s chopped that number down to a miniscule 16.7%.
There are a few advantages to this method. First, it’s allowed him to hit better within the strike zone, as he’s barely even focused on pitches outside of it. But surprisingly, it’s had an unexpected effect as well; he’s crushing the ball outside of the zone.
Major league average contact rates on pitches outside the strike zone tend to hover around 68%. Zobrist was in the mid-50s up until the start of July. Afterwards? He hasn’t dropped his rate below 90%.
Graphically, it’s easier to understand his improvements. By chasing less, he’s hitting more.
He’s able to cover the zone much more efficiently, and when he has been chasing the results are good. When you can’t get a guy to whiff on pitches out of the zone, the gameplan gets thrown out the window. Look at his batting average heatmap since July 1:
It’s a little bland, but part of that is what makes it so beautiful. He almost never offers at pitches out of the zone. His level plane he keeps his bat on throughout the swing has always helped him tear up pitchers in the middle third, but with even more focus he’s able to spread the love around. Pitching him up still is the most effective strategy, but he’s crushing low balls, a new feature for him.
No one could really express much shock when it looked like Ben Zobrist’s career was winding down. He’s given the Rays more than a few great seasons at a fraction of what he should cost, and the ride had to end at some point. But he’s re-vamped his efforts up to his usual production, and the results are striking. His hot second half has him already at 4.7 fWAR, on pace for another terrific year.
Just when it seemed that Zobrist has finally hit a wall, he just burst right through it.