Evaluating the Hitters in 2014: Ben Zobrist

Over the rest of the off-season I want to review the performance of the guys that had an impact in 2014. I’ll start with the batters before moving over to the pitchers and am going to use the same format for each so that it should be easy to compare players to each other. The more of these that get done the better you’ll have a handle for the strengths and weaknesses of each player.

I want to start off with the guy that led the Rays in batting runs last year with 13.6 above average. Ben Zobrist is the man. He has been a great hitter and an even better fielder for a long time. Today let’s focus on the bat. I want to start off by showing his overall performance over the course of the year:

First a little background. The red line is fairly simple. This line represents the 50-Plate Appearance Trend of Ben’s wRC+ which I have calculated using the outcome of his plate appearance and park adjusting based on the park that the hit was recorded within. The blue line is an attempt to find his true talent level over these same 50-Plate Appearance intervals. I regress his career platoon splits in order to find his true split which is then moved around his overall wRC+ projection from Steamer. I do the same thing for the opposition pitcher and then plug in both expectations into a Log5 calculator to get a very good idea of the matchup between Ben Zobrist and every single pitcher.

Here’s an example: early on last year Ben was matched up with Jason Vargas, the esteemed lefty for the Kansas City Royals in their park. You would expect Ben to put up around a 135 wRC+ against Vargas. He went on to go 2-4 with a single and a homer good for a 236 wRC+ in the game. We can do this for every game or plate appearance to produce the lines above.

Overall, the matchup tool thought that BenZo would put up around a 125 wRC+ over the course of the year, but using my calculations I have him just shy of 110. You could be disappointed by how Ben hit last year and still recognize that he was much better than a league average hitter, but for a couple of extended stretches in the beginning and end of the season. At his peak he was 60% better than an average batter with a couple of stretches in the 130-140 range. The down periods are disconcerting due to their length, but he still showed the ability to be a serious force in the lineup. It’s not perfect, but a pretty good explainer for these periods are his out-of-zone swings:

I hope this is clear, the lines labeled in the legend are fairly obvious and the dashed lines show Ben’s average for each category for the year. Note that the two times that his OSwing rate was up were also the times of his weakest performance. His contact rate on these pitches is also elevated, but that’s not necessarily a good thing because most hitters can’t do a whole lot with a pitch out of the zone. When he’s able to stay within his plan Ben can be a solid mix of getting on base and extra base hits making him the ideal component for the top or middle of any lineup.

I want to switch gears now and take a look at some heat maps. For each pitch I’m going to start out looking at his swing rate versus lefties and righties compared to the rest of his career before moving on to his Run Values compared to both himself, again over the length of his career, and the league average. It will make more sense once you’ve seen an example so let’s get to it starting with fastballs (four- and two-seamers, cutters, and sinkers):

Recall that we’re comparing Ben’s swing rates in 2014 to his swing rates over the rest of his career. As an example, check out that up and in portion of blue against lefties. He was swinging around 20% less at that pitch this year than he had in the past and so on. He was more hesitant to swing at that pitch from lefties, but chasing up and away much more often than in the past. He was mostly the same against righties, except for taking a couple of spots more than he normally would.

Ben compared to himself is on the left and his 2014 compared to league average is on the right. You’ll notice that Ben had some green areas where he performed slightly better than he had in the past and some other stuff where he was the same, but you can see that fastballs up and away and down on the inner third gave him more trouble. It is most likely that these are fastballs that Ben is chasing off the plate which jibes with what we saw above about him expanding his zone a bit.

Zobrist’s switch-hitting makes it impossible to tell inside vs. outside and whatnot compared to the league, but you can see that fastballs up were a bit of a problem. You can see a ton of area where he compares favorably versus the league average. Let’s move on to breaking balls (sliders, curves, and knuckle or spike curves):

Lefties are getting Ben to swing much less than he used to on breaking balls up and it looks like he’s swinging more than he used to on pitches on the borderline in, out and up. He’s mostly the same against righties with a couple of hot and cold spots mostly out of the zone.

Ben had worse run values compared to himself on the breaking down, though there’s plenty of territory throughout the zone where he was just as good as his career if not a little better. We see a lot of that when we’re comparing to his peers, as well. Outside of that spot up and that same pattern down he’s doing a pretty good job still with the breaking ball. I’ve labeled Ben as a fastball hitter in the past, but you can see that other than that one big hole in his swing he does a pretty good job on the rest of the breakers. Let’s look at change ups now:

Batting right-handed (against lefties) he swings more often than he has in the past on changes down and in while swinging much less at changes up and in on the plate and low and away off the plate. The former seems like a pitch that should be crushed, while laying off the change off the plate is just dandy with me. Against righties he got incredibly swing happy. Really nice to see him get aggressive on these pitches when they’ve been left up. Here’s his run values:

Zorilla put up similar run values to what he has done throughout his career other than that one very hot spot and we see a similar tale when comparing him to the rest of the league last year.

Ben showed some slippage last year as he got a little more aggressive out of the zone than he had in the past, but this is still a guy that walks the patience-passive line better than most guys in the league and he still has enough pop to make pitchers have to be careful. There’s no reason to think that he could be an even better hitter next year if he can start to tighten it up again. Hard to believe that a guy that put up 5+ WAR last year still has some room for growth, but then Ben’s always been a special guy for this team.

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About Jason Hanselman

Rays fan.
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One Response to Evaluating the Hitters in 2014: Ben Zobrist

  1. Pingback: Evaluating the 2014 Hitters: Kevin Kiermaier |

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