The Situation: Tampa Bay utility man Ben Zobrist(notes) (the BZA) was certainly the most versatile and he may have arguably been the most valuable everyday player in the major leagues last season. Logging time at every position on the diamond but pitcher and catcher, Zobrist slammed 27 homers and ranked 10th in all of baseball with a .948 OPS.
What's more, Zobrist wasn't just versatile, he was legitimately good, with average to above-average defense at every one of his positions. Basically, he has Joe McEwing's(notes) glove with Chase Utley's(notes) bat. (He was equally shuffled up and down the batting order, too, with double-digit starts in the 3, 4, 5 and 6 spots.) Because of that, he actually led all position players in the majors in Wins Above Replacement.
He also came out of nowhere. By the time he turned 28 on May 26, he had logged a grand total of 586 at-bats in the majors — about a season's worth, spread over parts of 2006, 2007 and 2008 — and had a combined line of .234/.301/.416. After his 28th birthday, he hit .300/.409/.522 in 393 at-bats. Zobrist is a true Cinderella story, but you have to wonder if the other glass shoe is getting ready to drop.
The Question: Is Ben Zobrist for real, or was his performance last year a fluke?
The Analysis: Age is the first and last reason to doubt Zobrist. He is a genuine anomaly, never playing a full season till his 28th birthday and then breaking out with a .900 OPS in his first full year. Other than players from the Negro Leagues and Japan's Hideki Matsui(notes), he and Paul Lo Duca(notes) are the only two such players in the last 60 years to have their first breakout at such an advanced age.
But as prospect analyst John Sickels writes, Zobrist wasn't a complete nobody — he always showed good plate discipline and decent power in the minors, walking more than he struck out and maintaining a career minor league OPS of .888. His minor league track record and plate discipline are strong points in his favor going forward.
Also, Zobrist may have just gotten unlucky in small sample sizes earlier in his major league career. He was terrible in the majors in his cups of coffee in 2006 and 2007, but in 2008 he started to came on strong, with an .844 OPS and 12 home runs in just 62 games. Ryan Ludwick(notes) had a similar late-20s breakout after a serious of stops and starts, though Zobrist has much better plate discipline and has been far less fragile in his career.
The biggest change has been his power. Zobrist himself credits his offensive turnaround to swing mechanic Jamie Cevallos, which is hard to prove — but Zobrist has certainly had an impressive improvement in his power production over the last two years. Of course, he was a fine hitter in the minors, in all respects other than power. Before 2008, he was a high-average, high-OBP guy in the minors whose isolated power — slugging minus batting average — was .135, not terrible but very unremarkable. In the majors over the last two years, his isolated power has been .247, which is excellent.
But is this the real Ben, or was it just a one-year spike?
His peripherals indicate a likely decline. As the rest of his numbers went way up, his major league BABIP spiked from .236 to a likely unsustainable .326. Similarly, his line drive rate increased from 17 to 24 percent. (His minor league line drive rate was only 18.9 percent.) But the major projection systems are divided on just how much he'll decline. Bill James — who almost always has the highest numbers among all the projections — expects a modest regression, to an .874 OPS; CHONE is even less optimistic, projecting .832. ZiPS and the Graphical Player 2010 are both projecting right around an .800 OPS. Everyone seems to agree that it was a career year.
But we don't have a whole lot of reliable data to go on, other than the knowledge that Paul Lo Duca never came within 130 points of his career-high 2001 OPS.
The Forecast for 2010: As I said last week with David Wright, whenever there are two extremes that seem equally likely, the projections often tend to split the difference, even though reality rarely lands in the middle. Because of the Akinori Iwamura(notes) trade, Zobrist appears to be assured of a full-time job at second base next season, which may help him focus on his hitting — or it may detract from a successful formula. However, even bottom-of-the-lineup numbers from Zobrist would look fine in the middle infield. Regardless of his power production, it's likely that his OBP will remain relatively high, in the .370-.390 range. But it's pretty clear that the power is gonna come down. Twenty homers seems within reach, but his OPS will likely be closer to .800 than .900.