Just one year ago, people were talking about the decline of Ben Zobrist and for good reason. At this time during the 2017 season, Zobrist was putting the finishing touches on a .232/.318/.375 slash line. That mediocre line produced just 12 home runs, 20 doubles and 50 RBI as it looked like age was finally catching up to the then 36-year-old utility-man.
Despite the veteran’s lackluster numbers, Chicago Cubs’ officials never lost faith in Zobrist. Part of the reasoning behind that was the switch-hitter’s numbers prior to the 2017 campaign. Between four different teams from 2014 to 2016, Zobrist posted a .367 OBP and a .428 slugging percentage, good for an OPS-plus of 119. Those numbers, and his solid efforts in the postseason, earned the veteran back-to-back World Series MVP honors in 2015 (with Kansas City) and 2016 (with the Cubs) and a reputation as a clutch hitter around the game.
Even with his age, Zobrist never lost the faith of his manager and front office despite posting dreadful numbers one season ago. Time and time again, we have seen guys struggle one year and bounce back the next, but Zobrist has done so at the age of 37 and seems to be a lock for National League Comeback Player of the Year.
Hard Contact in Bunches
As evidenced by his .375 slugging percentage during the 2017 season, Zobrist did not drive the ball very well. Throughout his career, that has been a fairly large portion of Zobrist’s game as the veteran owns a career line-drive rate of 19.5 percent and hard contact rate of 30.2 percent.
While Zobrist’s line-drive rate dipped to 15.6 percent last season, his ground ball rate spiked to a career-high 51.1 percent at the same time his hard contact percentage clocked in at 32.2 percent. More balls on the ground, even if they are hit hard, is not a good sign, especially for a player who does not have a good speed element to his game.
This season, it seems Zobrist has returned to what made him successful as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2012, the utility-man posted a line-drive rate of 21.8 percent and a hard hit rate of just above 30 percent. That year, Zobrist logged an OPS-plus of 137, finishing in the top-20 for the American League MVP Award.
Six years later, Zobrist is posting very similar — and better — numbers than he did during one of his most successful seasons in a big league uniform. Midway through September, the veteran owns a line-drive rate of 22.3 percent (highest since 2006) and a hard contact rate of 36.8 percent. If it holds for the remainder of the regular season, that last number would far-and-away be the best one he has posted in his major league career.
Contact Over Power
Just because Zobrist owns an elevated hard contact rate this season does not mean the veteran is hitting many home runs. In fact, Zobrist currently has just nine long-balls this season, resulting in an ISO of .139 which is actually lower than the mark he posted one year ago.
While that’s the case, Zobrist will enter Saturday’s match-up with the Chicago White Sox with the fourth highest batting average (.309) in the National League behind two MVP candidates in Christian Yelich and Freddie Freeman. Zobrist is within striking distance of the NL batting title, not because of his home run and extra base hit mentality at the plate, but because of his contact oriented approach.
Of the 129 hits the switch-hitter has racked up this season, 91 of them have been singles while another 27 have went for two bases. With an average launch angle of just 8.6 degrees this season, Zobrist has been seen many times this season barely lifting the ball over the infield defense. Those balls, which often find green grass, are also hit with authority as Zobrist owns an average exit velocity of 89.4 MPH, his highest in the last four seasons.
Without an ideal percentage of barrels (just 3.3 percent – MLB average 6.1 percent), Zobrist is still finding ways to put good wood on the bat as he is logging a hard hit rate of 38.4 percent, while his combination of exit velocity and launch angle provide the veteran with a xwOBA of .356 (MLB average – .318).
Perhaps fueling Zobrist’s bounce-back season is a more aggressive approach at the dish. Just watching Zobrist at the plate, one gets the feeling that he knows the strike zone better than anyone on the field and that includes the umpires. Most of the time, the Cubs can count on the veteran to supply a good, grinding at-bat, especially in big situations. With that being said, the numbers actually tell us Zobrist is getting more aggressive when it’s his turn to bat.
In 2016, Zobrist posted a first pitch swing percentage of just 15.7 percent, a number that dropped from 16.4 percent a year before that. Since that 2016 campaign in which Zobrist helped the Cubs capture a World Series title, the switch-hitter has been swinging at the first pitch an increased amount of the time. Last year, that number jumped to 20.4 percent and has increased again thus far in 2018, this time to 22.4 percent.
Perhaps as a by-product of that, Zobrist owns a zone swing percentage of 59.6 percent, a number that is up two percentage points from last season, while his overall swing percentage has seen a slight uptick from 2017 and a more than five percent increase from two years ago.
Despite his 14.7 percent whiff percentage this year (highest of the last four seasons), Zobrist is feasting on opponents mistakes. Since 2015, Zobrist has seen a “meatball” percentage between 6.4 and 6.9 percent. A “meatball” is a pitch (typically right down the middle) that is easy to hit and can usually be seen on the first pitch of an at-bat. While that number sits on the low-end of that spectrum this season at 6.4 percent, Zobrist is swinging at those pitches much more in 2018. After posting meatball swing percentages of 66.4, 67.4 and 67.2 in 2015, ’16 and ’17 respectively, Zobrist is currently sitting on a 72.5 percent swing rate on those pitches this season.
While it’s not completely clear, the correlation between Zobrist’s uptick in both first pitch swing and meatball swing percentages cannot be ignored as an explanation for the veteran’s resurgence this season.
Another possible reason for Zobrist’s uptick in performance this season and lackluster play last season is his health. In 2017, Zobrist missed almost a month with left wrist problems and has suggested he was not 100 percent for much of last year’s campaign.
A wrist injury could and seems to have derailed Zobrist’s season one year ago. However, the 37-year-old’s more aggressive nature at the plate and wiliness to attack more first pitch fastballs has no doubt helped silence all the people who were talking about decline in September of 2017.
As the season comes to a close and the Cubs continue to cling to first place in the NL Central, Ben Zobrist will continue to play a large role for the North Siders. With Addison Russell out of the equation for the remainder of this season and perhaps forever, Zobrist will play an increasingly important role during the remainder of his contract with the Cubs.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Athletic
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