Is that blistering heat coming from Ben Zobrist’s bat or the imposing collection of candles atop his birthday cake? This week, it’s definitely both.
He is officially thirty-five, and in the abbreviated life span of a professional athlete, he has supposedly arrived at the waning. Well beyond his commonly understood peak, Zobrist has just transitioned, in at least one analyst’s reckoning, from his late mature phase to his final period of decline. How’s that for a birthday greeting? It turns out to be a pretty hilarious joke to the Cubs’ second baseman, who is not only on absolute fire right now, but has logged the first half of his past-prime thirties staying remarkably consistent and improving each year.
Theo Epstein has been fascinated: “…[it’s] one of the reasons we signed him, if you look at his peripherals he’s actually gotten better each of the last four years. It’s pretty amazing seeing a guy turn thirty-five continuing to get better, doing it the right way.” But Zobrist’s performance since joining the Cubs is not merely “better.” He has been throwing himself a month-long birthday bash, raining down hits like piñata candy.
In nearly every offensive category this year, Zobrist is matching or exceeding the breakout All-Star season he had in his 28-year-old heyday. Zobrist’s WAR is currently top five in baseball, and his simply ridiculous walk to strikeout ratio is leading the field. Of course, summer is not even upon us, fall is achingly distant, and there is plenty of time for regression and plateau. As Cat Garcia warns, NL pitchers may figure him out any day now, relegating his adjustment period-fueled super powers back down to human strength.
And yet, I would not put it past Zobrist to end up having the best season of his career at thirty-five. Surpassing expectations is nothing new for the man who single-handedly redefined what utility player can mean to a big league club. It’s par for the course to the high school kid who was told his playing days were over, yet managed to work all the way up to the Show. Zobrist’s .404/.508/.646 line since April 21 may not be sustainable, but it doesn’t have to be a complete aberration. Given his competitive zeal, propensity to break the mold, and new favorable circumstances, Zobrist has what it takes to make a late-career renaissance distinctly possible.
In perusing media accounts of Ben Zobrist, the same adjectives keep popping up. The casual googler will quickly learn of his versatility, leadership, faithfulness, and do-whatever-the-team-needs enthusiasm. Reports on his status as a marvelous human being abound. Less obvious is the inherent personality feature he has carried from youth: beneath the serene exterior lies a fierce competitor whose self-motivation to improve may border on obsession.
Growing up, Zobrist’s overwhelmingly competitive nature had him shoving other kids to be first at lunch, teaching himself to switch hit to dominate whiffle ball, training compulsively to run a five minute mile (in seventh grade), and feeling lost when his four-sport high school career ended with no athletic prospects in sight. When overlooked by recruiters, he wagered his birthday money on a college tryout, and then could not rest until he had carved a path to a Division I transfer and the MLB draft. True to form, he was a man on a mission, which he discussed at length this off season:
“I knew I needed to get better, and I didn’t know how good I could be, but I knew there were other guys that were trying to get better, too, and if I really wanted to succeed I had to do all the little things. That meant early ground balls, that meant extra work. To me it was extra work… in college I remember, everybody else focused on going out and partying on the weekends or whatever. My wife joked with me, and she got me a tee when we were dating, to pretend like the tee was basically what I would do Friday and Saturday night.”
Except that it wasn’t pretend. Zobrist really did spend many a college weekend night working off that tee. As he remembered it, “Probably 200 [cuts]. Probably over an hour, maybe two hours at times if I wanted to get extra work. A lot of times I would not finish until I felt like I had made some strides. I wasn’t going to be satisfied until I felt like I was better than I was when I walked into the cage.”
This dedication to becoming the best possible version of himself naturally continued through the draft process and ascension through the minor league ranks:
“I didn’t know how good I could be, but I wanted to succeed at each level and see how far I could go. And I really stayed in the moment… that sometimes can get lost when you’re so focused on your dream. For me, I tried to keep that dream at a little bit of a length so that I could focus on just the small goals along the way… I was 23. A lot of these guys are getting drafted at 18, 19, 20. Some of them even had more seasoning in pro ball than me when I got there, and I was kind of behind… I had to make it work quick.”
Once more, the prospect of getting beat to that lunch line simply would not stand. He made it happen by setting himself apart with uncommon versatility and a willingness to do anything his team needed. Fast-forward to today, a decade into his inarguably successful major league career, and Zobrist is still the same guy, approaching his job with more to prove to himself than to anyone. The competitive fervor remains and may partly account for his current surge in productivity as a Cub. Joining a new, extremely talented lineup of players who were preseason favorites to win it all, and doing it at his age, meant it was time to go to work again.
Some preseason narratives predicted he would assume an almost fatherly role to compliment Grandpa Rossy’s influence over the young Cubs’ clubhouse. But in Zobrist’s mind, he was there to do what he’d always done: become a winning force on his team. And these Cubs were looking so good coming into the season, he knew he had better bring it. Zobrist told David Kaplan, “I will provide some leadership as I can, but got to stay healthy, got to take care of my own business and make sure that I’m taking care of my part because this is going to be a really good team.”
Therein lies the second key to Zobrist’s age-defying accomplishments. Just as he took issue with the notion that a utility player couldn’t be an All Star, facing the expectation that a thirty-five-year-old should be weakening simply meant working harder to prove everyone wrong. With multiple teams wooing Zobrist in free agency talks last fall, his health was understandably a big part of the conversation. They were not disappointed.
John Ricco of the Mets explained, “He keeps himself in shape. A lot of what we talked about with him was his workout regimen, his diet, all those things you want to hear from a player if he’s going to have a chance to play later in his career… This guy is going to give himself a chance to play at a high level as long as possible.” In his first two months as a Cub, Zobrist has been a man of his word, with religious dedication to his pre- and post-game routines: “If I miss some of the things, I feel it. I’m just trying to create a working knowledge of my body. So it knows what to expect.”
Joe Maddon has been impressed with how the Zobrist of today stacks up against the kid he met back in Tampa Bay: “The chronological years may be piling up, but the way he works and how he goes about the day is probably better, combined with better knowledge… He moves the same, he throws the same, his bat speed is equally good. I think it’s a tribute to how well he takes care of himself.”
Along with the new emphasis on health and routine, Zobrist can also now pursue an unprecedented level of focus on his play. Choosing Chicago was less about returning to his geographical home (although proximity to his parents in Eureka was a definite plus) and more about finally finding a home on the diamond. Zobrist made clear his desire, after a decade of having to be ready to play anywhere, to hold a steady position this time around. The ramifications of the change can only be guessed at, but allowing a player of Zobrist’s character and makeup to specialize at long last may be the greatest contributing factor to his sizzling spring.
In his previous super-utility roles, Zobrist was committed to preparing, mentally and physically, for nearly every eventuality on the field. It’s a lot to ask, and it’s why there have been so few to do it so well. Mets GM Jim Duquette described the job simply: “He came to the park saying, ‘I’m going to be in the lineup—just play me.’ He put his work in before the game started to be prepared at any position—and in any situation—for his team.”
To be good at so much tends to preclude greatness at anything. Whether or not his extended utility stint may have acted as a sort of governor on offense is impossible to say. However, Zobrist has already voiced his satisfaction with having positional stability: “It’s a lot easier. I just know that there are certain things I have to do to be ready for the game and if I were playing a lot of positions I’d have to do a lot more.”
Unsurprisingly, the fanatically-self-motivated second baseman with newly available prep time opted to take on some extra work with the hitting coach. According to Zobrist, “Me and Mallee, we’re doing some things in the batting cage early, some routine things that I wasn’t doing earlier… some cues mentally that I wasn’t thinking about before.” Needless to say, it’s working.
For Ben Zobrist, thirty-five is shaping up to be a very happy birthday, indeed. The milestone may someday prove to mark a turning point in his career, but decline isn’t looking like a strong option. I’m pretty sure he won’t allow it. It bodes well that Zobrist grew up idolizing Ozzie Smith (which Cubs’ fans will have to forgive if he can also put up some of his highest WAR seasons at age thirty-seven and thirty-eight). Even with a hefty contract on a championship-caliber team, he’s never going to feel like he has made it. There’s always another level, a next goal to conquer, and as Zobrist concluded:
“I think anybody that’s ever become great, it’s not going to come easy. It doesn’t come easy, and I’m not there yet, I haven’t arrived, and I never will on this earth, but I do know that if we want to reach our potential, we’ve got to push ourselves further than we ever thought we could.”
I can’t wait to see where this goes.
Lead photo courtesy Kelley L. Cox—USA Today Sports.