Ben Zobrist turns 35 years old today — that very number scared some Cubs fans just five months ago when the team signed the switch-hitting second baseman to a 4-year, $56 million deal.
Some fans scoffed at the idea of paying a rusty veteran top-tier money. It’s funny how fans will complain about money being spent that isn’t theirs.
But, once again, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer hit the nail on the head with this move. In this world, there’s nothing we can be certain of except death, taxes and Theo Epstein being dead right on every decision he makes.
Zobrist was exactly what the Cubs needed and then some. In a seemingly over-crowded infield that boasted some of the best young talent in the league, fans wondered where Zobrist would fit into the puzzle. For the foreseeable future, it seems that he now has a stranglehold on the second base spot.
Most Cubs fans have noticed the emergence of the versatile 35-year-old, but taking a deeper look at the numbers proves how significant his impact has been. He’s leading the majors in on-base percentage at .453. That’s nearly 100 points above his career average, which was already pretty good.
How’s he doing it? Zobrist has become one of the most selective hitters in baseball. He’s walking on 16.6% of his plate appearances. That’s good for fifth in the bigs — and three of the players he trails (sluggers Bryce Harper, Jose Bautista and Paul Goldschmidt) have skewed percentages due to how frequently they’re intentionally walked.
Not only does he have the type of “good-eye” that your little-league coach always wanted to see, he’s also one of baseball’s best contact hitters. Zobrist strikes out on just 9.3% of his plate appearances, which is the fourth lowest strike out rate in baseball. He makes contact on over 90 percent of the pitches he swings at (4th best in MLB).
I think you’re starting to get the idea. Zobrist has tremendous discipline at the dish. If pitchers want to get him out, they have to throw him strikes. But, that’s problematic when considering his team-best .353 batting average.
As good as Zobrist has been so far, has his success justified the big bucks he made this past offseason? That’s impossible to decide at this point. He’s one quarter of the way through his first season of a four-year contract. There’s a lot of baseball left to be played on that deal. But for now, he’s playing well above his pay grade.
Zobrist leads all second basemen in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 2016. For the curmudgeonly, old-school baseball fans out there who hate modern baseball analytics, WAR quantifies a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. Many baseball experts believe it to be a great judge of a player’s overall effectiveness as compared to the league average.
So, one more time, Zobrist has the best WAR amongst all second basemen in the league. Names like Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve might demand more respect amongst the baseball elite — but, for now, Zobrist is outplaying each of them. While it may be a relatively small sample size considering we’re only 45 games into the season, there are no signs that Zobrist will slow down. Will he? That’s tough to say.
As it stands today, the birthday boy is baseball’s best second basemen.
Somewhere, sitting on his baseball throne, Theo Epstein smiles on. Once again, death taxes — and if I receive wind that Theo is playing the ponies out at Arlington, I’ll let you know.
Kevin McCarthy, a junior at the University of Illinois, is serving an internship at Scout.com this summer and covering the Cubs for NorthSidersReport. You can follow him at @KevOMcCarthy on Twitter or contact him by e-mail at Kevin.McCarthy00@yahoo.com