500 Words on Ben Zobrist

In 2009 and again in 2011, Ben Zobrist led the American League in Wins Above Replacement, which in some households translated to him being the best player in the league. People have strong opinions both ways about WAR as a statistic, and Zobrist was a perfect case study. In 2011, for instance, his WAR according to Baseball Reference was slightly higher than Jose Bautista’s.

A look at basic offensive statistics does not seem to allow for this possibility:

Bautista: .302/.447/.608, 43 homers, 103 RBIs, 105 runs, 9 stolen bases.

Zobrist: .269/.353/.469, 20 homers, 91 RBIs, 99 runs, 19 stolen bases.

So why did WAR give Zobrist the edge? Well, agree or disagree, Zobrist’s defense — he played right field and third base — won him an extra three wins. And, according to WAR, Bautista’s defense cost the Blue Jays a win. That’s a four-win swing, more than enough to make up three or so win difference in their offense.

You can believe this or you can call it statistical witchcraft, but the point is: WAR is the most prominent statistic going that at least TRIES to incorporate defense. Zobrist might not have been the best player in the American League. But, at least WAR suggests he was much better than most people thought. And that is a good thing.

This week, the Royals traded for Ben Zobrist, and even though he isn’t quite the player he once was — this year, for the first time in his career, John Dewan’s system shows him to be a slightly below average defender — it’s a signal of the times. The Royals have the best record in the league even though, by standards of old, they shouldn’t be good at all. They are 14th in the AL in home runs. Their starting rotation has a 4.31 ERA, well below average. How do you explain it?

Well, if you like, you can call it the Zobrist Effect. The Royals do so many little things right that when you add them up, it equals big things. They play the best defense in baseball. They mix in speed with some power. They put the ball in play (Zobrist, actually, strikes out a lot but we’re stretching the illustration).* The Royals do other things that go well beyond Zobrist. For example, they shut down the late innings with the game’s best bullpen.

*Update: As a couple of Brilliant Readers pointed out, Zobrist no longer strikes out a lot. I was looking in his prime years, and he did strike quite a bit then -- he struck out 100-plus times four years in a row, topping out at 128 strikeouts in 2011. But these days he does strike out less than average, and this year he has struck out just 26 times in 271 plate appearances so that's really good.

In 2009, when Zobrist had his best season, the Royals looked utterly hopeless. They lost 97 games despite starter Zack Greinke having a season for the ages. They couldn’t hit, and they had subpar defenders at literally every single position except left field, where they kept pushing for the merely competent David DeJesus to win a Gold Glove. Zobrist, playing in relative anonymity for the thrilling young Tampa Bay Rays, was a symbol of what a team could look like if management would just look beyond the surface.

Six years later, the Royals pick up Zobrist to help them in the stretch run. The amazing part: He fits right in.