Ben Zobrist has become something of a household name. Well known for his postseason heroics, the utility man helped both the Kansas City Royals and Chicago Cubs to World Series titles. However, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, some might say that he burst onto the scene in 2009 with an unexpected campaign. A player who had always generally hit for contact suddenly had a ton of power, and a lot more opportunities. Ben Zobrist had fought through three somewhat grueling years in 2006, ’07, and ’08. During all three, he had combined for only 145 games played. That said, he continued to fight, and suddenly found himself a major player on a major franchise operation.
The 2009 Tampa Bay Rays and Ben Zobrist went together like honey and butter. Both were hungry and looking to prove something. Zobrist, after getting his first whiff of success in 2008, was searching to build upon that and create his own major league story. The Rays sought to defend their ’08 American League crown and return to the World Series, this time in a winning effort. Hunger might have driven both entities, yet only one achieved their ultimate goal. Zobrist had his best career season and, while the Rays failed to defend their title, they did lay claim to having one of the best utility players in the game.
Ben Zobrist Pre-2009
Ben Zobrist tore the NCAA circuit apart in 2004 with the Dallas Baptist Patriots, punishing pitchers to the tune of a .378 average in 60 games. From there, the Houston Astros selected him in the sixth round of that year’s draft. He made a good first impression with the short-season Single-A Tri-City ValleyCats. From there, he continued to establish himself as an excellent contact hitter. Combined, he had 333 hits in only 279 games from 2004-2006. Midway through 2006, the Astros traded him to Tampa Bay with Mitch Talbot in return for Aubrey Huff. Not much later, Zobrist got the call to the big leagues. After bouncing back and forth for a season and a half, he finally made a permanent jump in 2008.
The 2009 Tampa Bay Rays
For the Rays, 2009 was a chance at redemption. Again, they were the defending American League champions, having lost the 2008 World Series to the Philadelphia Phillies. Young superstar Evan Longoria looked to build on a Rookie of the Year performance. Veterans Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, and Pat Burrell sought to have yet another prominent impact. Meanwhile, the pitching staff was solidified by James Shields, Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, and David Price. J.P. Howell and Lance Cormier were holding down the bullpen. In all, while they had some notable names, things simply didn’t quite click for them. Despite a respectable 84–78 record, they finished third in the AL East and missed the playoffs.
A Slower Start
Ben Zobrist began 2009 with a bit of a slow burn. After going four for his first 20, he went nine for his next 25. In all, Zobrist slashed .289/.360/.644 with a 1.004 OPS in April. He also picked up four homers, ten RBI, and four doubles in 17 games. His good work at the plate helped secure a WAR of 0.8, eighth in the big leagues among second basemen for the month. He also managed a wRC+ of 163, placing him fifth among his position. This outranked such established names as Robinson Cano, Brian Roberts, and Aaron Hill. In short, Ben Zobrist practically sprung into spring.
Ben Zobrist Finds Success in May
May brought even more for Zobrist. In 28 games, he slashed .313/.439/.625 with an OPS of 1.064. He picked up four more homers and proved to be invaluable with runners on base (16 RBI). This particular hot streak was spurred by an ability to simply hit the ball hard. During May, Zobrist ranked behind only the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Brian Bixler in hard hit percentage among second baseman (41.8%). In terms of all position players, he was well within the top 30. Something that was an achilles heel for Ben Zobrist was his inability to hit the ball to all fields. He was fifth at his position when it came to pull percentage (52.2%). However, he balanced this out by being incredibly patient at the plate, posting the third best walk percentage at his position (18.4%).
A Smashing Summer
The sizzle of summer brought more heat from Ben Zobrist. During June and July, he slashed .303/.409/.537 with an OPS of .946. He hit a thunderous .347 on balls put in play, swatted ten homers, and drove in 29 runs in 50 games. His ability for excellent contact was beginning to be balanced with some serious firepower. He also carried an excellent bit of leather. His 7.8 dWAR was second only to Chase Utley among second basemen and tied with Russell Martin for eighth best among all position players. Truly, the heat had gotten to Ben Zobrist, and the results were showing.
A Severe Downturn
Unfortunately, August was not quite as kind. Zobrist slashed .242/.383/.440 with an OPS of .822 for the month. Opposing defenses were beginning to figure him out as his BABIP dropped to .239. He did continue to show patience at the plate, walking 21 times as opposed to 17 strikeouts. His productivity didn’t wane either (16 RBI). Power wise, he was still somewhat on point, belting five homers and cracking three doubles. That said, he did tumble down the major league leaderboards. A wRC+ of 125 was 19th among second baggers and 128th among position players. Regression had reared its’ ugly head, and Ben Zobrist was feeling it severely.
A Month of Restoration
Through the last month or so, Zobrist found his stroke again. Over his final 31 games, he slashed .327/.409/.536 with an OPS of .946. He added four more homers, and nine more doubles, bringing his season totals to 27 and 28, respectively. His 36 hits were tied with Jose Lopez for the fourth most among second basemen over the stretch. In terms of average, he outhit Dustin Pedroia, Brandon Phillips, and even Utley himself. He tied Alberto Callaspo for the fifth highest wRC+ at his position (154) and even added a wOBA of .409. This was better than Phillips, Utley, Cano, and Howie Kendrick.
Overall, Ben Zobrist established himself as being, quite possibly, the best second baseman in the big leagues. He certainly did so in the American League. A wRC+ of 152 was best at his position and he had the highest wOBA as well (.407). Patience played into his game as well, posting the highest walk rate of any second baseman with at least 250 plate appearances (15.2%). Now, Zobrist is seen as a World Series hero. Back then, he was a struggling infielder with something to prove. In 2009, he definitely proved it.
Embed from Getty Images
Ben Zobrist, Mitch Talbot, Aubrey Huff, Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, Pat Burrell, James Shields, Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, David Price, J.P. Howell, Lance Cormier, Robinson Cano, Brian Roberts, Aaron Hill, Brian Bixler, Chase Utley, Russell Martin, Jose Lopez, Dustin Pedroia, Brandon Phillips, Alberto Callaspo, Howie Kendrick