Is Ben Zobrist Superman?

No. (He doesn’t wear glasses.)

But, I must say, Ben Zobrist is a pretty awesome dude. Going into the Winter Meetings this past December, I wanted nothing more than for the rumors of Zobrist’s possible signing with the Cubs to become a reality—even more so than I wanted the Jason Heyward rumors to come true (which for the record, just like everyone else, I wanted also.)

It became quite apparent as the season went on that the Cubs had outgrown shortstop Starlin Castro, and everybody knew it. Castro had success for a short stretch at second base, however it just felt like very short-term solution and once the offseason began, it grew increasingly possible that the perfect-fit Zobrist would come to the Cubs, squeezing Castro out, and everything would feel just a bit more right. And that’s exactly what happened.

Zobrist has everything. He’s got decent speed, he plays solid defense, he’s a super-utility player (something that has “Joe Maddon” written all over it), he’s a veteran with 10 years of Major League experience under his belt, and he has history working under the tutelage of Joe Maddon.

All that, and I haven’t even gotten to his offense yet.

Zobrist is having quite the season. He’s currently posting a line of .338/.448/.514 with six home runs and two stolen bases—only one shy of his total last year. Zobrist has been known for his patient plate approach throughout his career. He takes his walks, minimizes his strikeouts, and makes good quality contact on the balls he chooses to hit; all things that the Cubs were looking to add to their 2016 approach.

But the Cubs are seeing Zobrist not only meet their expectations—which may have even been a bit tempered due to the fact that we know Zobrist is getting “up there” (he turns 35 on Thursday)—but he’s exceeding them at the plate. That’s something that when I sat on my couch hoping and praying that “Zorilla” would be seen in blue pinstripes come April, I surely did not expect. (I’ll take it, though.)

So how good has he been? Well, Zobrist is currently walking at a 16.8 percent clip, the second highest walk rate he’s seen in his career. Not only that, but his strikeout rate has consistently decreased since 2011, and he’s now striking out at his career lowest clip, just 9.5 percent. Are these numbers going to come back to earth? Maybe a little, but these are two qualities Zobrist has been known for—low strikeouts and high walk rates. He’s simply improving on them so far this season.

But wait, that’s not all of it. If you call within in the next five minutes, there are even more impressive details about how well Zobrist is doing at the plate in 2016. Check out all of his zone percentages this year, where they rank in the NL, and how many of them are career bests.

2016 2015 NL Best Rank
O-Swing% 16.2* 22.6 2nd
Z-Swing% 59.2 55.4 9th
Swing% 33.9* 36.7 1st
O-Contact% 81.2* 80.9 2nd
Z-Contact% 94.4* 92.8 9th (tied)
Contact% 90.7* 88.6 3rd
SwStr% 3.2* 4.2 2nd 

* = Career best rate

(I’ll also throw in that Zobrist’s NL-best/lowest swing rate is also the lowest swing rate in all of baseball, just ahead of the Yankees’ Brett Gardner.)

Looking at these numbers, you’ll notice that Zobrist is among the top 3 in in the NL in most of these categories and in almost all of them he’s currently posting career best rates. Is some of this likely to regress? Probably. It’s still early, but many of these rates are not far off from the numbers Zobrist was posting in 2015 and even prior, if you look back. They’ve been steadily trending in the right direction—indicating that these numbers are not necessarily a small sample size outlier. 

Now that we’ve gone over all of this fascinating plate discipline data, let’s take a look at what Zobrist is actually doing when he’s making contact at the dish. Let’s start with his batted ball data.

LD% GB% BABIP Hard Contact % Soft Contact %
2016 25.6 39.8 344 35.6 9.6
2015 18.6 49 288 28.1 17.5
Career 19.5 44.8 294 29.3 16.3

One of the first things I noticed when looking over the numbers is that Zobrist is currently hitting the ball harder than ever (also reflected in the rise in LD percentage) in 2016, while decreasing his ground ball rate. The clip at which Zobrist is making hard contact is at a career high right now. Not only that, but Zobrist is also making soft contact at a career low rate of 9.6 percent, which is whole 8.1 percentage points lower than his 2015 soft contact rate, as noted above. As you can see, these numbers are not in line with Zobrist’s career totals at all. We’ll get to that in a moment. Zobrist’s soft contact rate is good for fourth lowest in the NL right now, but check out those whom he’s surrounded by:

Rank Player Soft Contact % Med Contact % Hard Contact %
1 Joey Votto 7.7 46.2 46.2
2 Matt Carpenter 8.5 49.6 41.9
3 David Wright 9.1 44.2 46.8
4 Ben Zobrist 9.6 54.8 35.6
5 Daniel Murphy 10 50 40

At first glance you’ll probably be thinking “Hmm. This isn’t the crowd that Zobrist would normally roll with, shouldn’t he be over at that table with guys who don’t smash baseballs at a much higher clip than he does?”

Well, yes. Check out the difference between the other hitters’ medium and hard contact rates as compared to Zobrist. He won’t fool this crowd for long.

What these numbers do is add context that allows for a more realistic view as to what Zobrist is doing at the plate right now and whether or not we should expect it to continue. So, should we?

Here’s the deal: The soft contact rate Zobrist is posting is likely to regress towards the mean eventually, in exchange for some of the extra hard contact he’s making. This claim is even further supported by the drastic reduction in ground balls Zobrist is producing this season and his abnormally high BABIP (also characterized by a rise in his line drive percentage, up by 7 percent this season from 2015) indicating Zobrist is seeing a bit of luck in his favor.

However, the good news is that it’s unlikely that the pendulum swings entirely the other way. It’s not likely that Zobrist’s soft contact rate sees some drastic rise, as his medium contact rate is virtually the same as his 2015 rate and career norm. So this is just a natural part of baseball’s ebb and flow, and when these numbers begin to trend towards the mean and balance out, Zobrist will still be as good as the Cubs expected him to be. For now, let’s enjoy all the hard contact while it’s still in supply. The really important part is that Zobrist is taking walks at an exceptional rate, and hardly striking out.

So could there possibly be a reason for this random occurrence besides the “That’s just how baseball works” one? Sure, Zobrist has openly stated that he’s seeing the ball better this year and he’s swinging at even less pitches outside the zone, making it possible for him to get a good piece of the ball and scorch it more often. But he most important reason in my eyes could because Zobrist has never played in the National League before. Adjustment periods! They’re quite fun because for a while, as you’re seeing with Zobrist, exorbitant amounts of wild success are suddenly on display in a short, random burst, before the opposition suddenly figures out how to tailor their approach for the new foe they’re facing. If you read the Fangraphs piece I linked to above, Zobrist himself thought this could possibly be one of the reasons for his recent success.

Ben Zobrist may not be Superman, but he’s off to a very hot start in his Cubs debut, and it’s been quite fun to watch. (Especially when you’re in the bleachers for his two-bomb game against the Nationals.) But when the excitement dies down a bit, you can expect that Zobrist is still sure to be excellent at the plate, on the field, and everywhere else—much like this whole Cubs team has been in 2016.

Lead photograph courtesy Kelley L. Cox—USA Today Sports.

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