Team MVP. First time all-star. First time dad. Higher Wins Above Replacement score than Albert Pujols. The only way 2009 could have been a better year for The Zorilla is if the team won the World Series. Zobrist was Mr. Everything for the Rays as he took the field at every position but pitcher and catcher in 2009 after starting the season as a reserve but quickly hit his way into more playing time and the May injury to Akinori Iwamura opened up a full-time spot in the lineup that he never relinquished.
The foundation for the success Zobrist had in 2009 was actually laid in 2008, both statistically and behind the scenes. Statistically, Zobrist was a key part of the Rays stretch run in September 2008. While he did not have a full time job at that point in the season, Zobrist hit .321/.424/.732 in 56 at bats that included 12 extra base hits and 12 RBI. Those 12 extra base hits in 56 September at bats equaled the 12 extra base hits that Zobrist had in his previous 142 at bats that 2008 season so right away, the pundits screamed about a small sample size. That is completely understandable and expected because a 56 at bat sample is too small to put too much merit into and anyone can get hot for a certain stretch of time. However, most people did not know that Zobrist was working privately with a new hitting instructor to transform him into a better hitter.
A quick look at Zobrists’s career minor league numbers show a solid average hitter with gap power that never hit more than seven homers in any minor league season. Those types of middle infielders end up being reserves in the majors until they grow into some power. As luck would have it for Zobrist, he crossed paths with a private hitting instructor during the winter of 2008 who assured him he would be able to transform his swing into a more powerful one. DRaysBay’s Tommy Rancel happened to uncover that bit of info that had flown under the radar and did an outstanding piece on it back in April 2009 that explained Jaime Cevallos’s theory of positional hitting and how he taught it to Zobrist. You can watch Cevallos’s own promotional video and then watch Zobrist highlights such as this one and this one to see the results in action. If we chalk up a lot of 2008 as an adjustment period for Zobrist to get accustomed to his new swing and start looking at his stats from 9/1/08 to present, we get a guy who has hit .300/.407/.562 in his last 557 at bats.
LWP stands for Linear Weighted Power. Linear Weights was a concept first introduced into baseball statistical analysis by the great Pete Palmer; LWP was popularized by BaseballHQ.com’s Ron Shandler that that only considers events that are measures of a batter’s pure power. A LWP score of 17 or higher is considered a very good score. SS stands for Speed Score – a concept developed to quantify a player’s speed based on a variety of factors that involve more than just stolen bases. I find it a very helpful tool as an analyst and fantasy baseball player to help find players who can be a hidden source of speed.
The table above shows Zobrist had an incredible run from September 2008 through June 2009. He had a 20% HR/FB ratio which sustained the 17% rate he had in 2008 that everyone called fluky. In his 266 at bats in that time, he hit .297/.412/.647 with 21 homers and 58 RBI. He was rewarded with a trip to the all-star game but that is where things started going downhill. Pitchers stopped feeding him fastballs on the inner half and instead started working him away, particularly with change-ups and Zobrist saw his power numbers drop in July and his batting average drop in August. It was encouraging to see his LWP score grow each of the final three months of the season even if he did not get back to his herculean efforts from the earlier part of the season. All this was done with very little loss of his batting eye at the plate as the month of July was the only bad score for his BB/K. His average strikeout rate is 22% but his average walk rate has been 16% in this time which is a very strong skill and definitely fuels his OBP which remained over .400 in two of the seven months mentioned above.
What do the prognosticators think Zobrist will do in 2010?
Clearly, our own Fanball predictions and Bill James are on the progressive side while the fans, CHONE, and ZIP are more conservative in their projections. If the concern is how poorly Zobrist tapered off in the second half, understand 2009 was his first full season of baseball in his career. Prior to 2009, he never had more than 381 at bats in any season of baseball since being drafted and then was handed 501 at bats in 2009. We see this kind of tiring happen with rookie football and basketball players who are accustomed to playing shorter seasons at the collegiate level so it is not crazy to think the same thing can happen to a positional player – particularly one who is asked to play seven positions in one season. Pitchers are not the only players who tire over the course of a season when handed an increased workload.
2010 is a key season for Zobrist to continue his transformation into a middle of the lineup hitter for the Rays. Carlos Pena is entering the final year of his current contract and Zobrist appears to be the only logical replacement within the organization. That shift over to first base will make it more imperative for him to continue hitting with power as the need for it is more glorified at the position. Billy Butler and Derrek Lee were nearly identical in 2009 hitting just over .300 with 7o+ extra base hits last season but Lee had 14 more homers and 13 more RBI. That difference allowed Lee to be worth nearly 40 batting runs above average while Butler was just 21 batting runs above average. The Rays chances of staying in the playoff race all season in the highly financed American League East are heavily influenced by Zobrist’s ability to repeat his overall success from the last 1.2 seasons and prove the slump from July and August was just a slump.
Previous 2010 pieces: