In retrospect, it’s going to be awfully amusing that Ben Zobrist’s 2018 is mostly going to be remembered for the shoes controversy. Somehow, MLB decided that in a league full of Josh Haders and Roberto Osunas, it was going to make an example out of a player who seemingly exists to answer the question: “What if Ned Flanders renamed his store ‘The Switchorium?’”
As you probably recall, back in the spring baseball’s fun police decided that the most pressing problem in today’s game was Zobrist wearing solid black shoes with his Cubs home uniform. It got to the point where he had to take to Instagram explain that he was merely doing so as a tribute to Ernie Banks, Stan Musial, and his favorite Spinal Tap album.
(I’m kidding, of course. I’m pretty sure the only way Zobrist would’ve heard of Tap would be if one day as he walked to the plate, the voice of Julianna Zobrist intoned “And oh how they danced, the little children of Stonehenge…”)
The point is that in the midst of all this silliness, we’ve been missing the true story of Ben Zobrist’s 2018 season. Because as he’s bounced back from an injury plagued 2017, Zobrist has cemented his place as one of the greatest free agents in Cubs history.
If that phrase sounds familiar, it should. The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney used a variation of it a couple months ago in a well done piece anointing Jon Lester as “the greatest free agent signing in Chicago sports history.” And while I’ll happily second that notion (and any essay extolling the virtues of the Cubs ace), I’d also like to add this idea to the discussion:
Ben Zobrist is a lot closer than most people think.
And it would still be that way if he contributed nothing more than his 2016 season. Powered by a .272/.386/.446 slashline and a sterling .306 TAv, Zobrist put up 4.0 WARP as he played his role to perfection in the 103-win World Championship juggernaut. It was one of the greatest performances by a free agent position player in Cubs history. For comparison’s sake, in terms of WARP, Zobrist’s 2016 would have been good enough to be the second best season of Alfonso Soriano’s eight years with the Cubs.
To be even more stark about it: the gold standard for Cubs position player free agents is Andre Dawson. And by WARP, Ben Zobrist’s 2016 was better than any of the six years The Hawk was in a Cubs uniform. Which means that Zobrist’s agent can finally land his client that much coveted chain link fence endorsement. And they say MLB doesn’t know how to market its players.
(By the way, the previous paragraph is also evidence that humanity is nowhere close to inventing time travel because my eight year old self from 1987 has still not materialized in the comments to give me the finger.)
But Zobrist’s value went beyond statistics. He was just as important to the World Championship effort for the shift in offensive philosophy that he represented. Before his arrival, the Cubs were a great hitting team but also struck out at an unsustainable rate—especially against elite fastball pitchers. This was exploited by the Mets’ staff in the 2015 NLCS, as the Cubs punched out a total of 37 times in four games and hit to the collective tune of .164/.225/.297—a point at which Major League Baseball would only allow announcers to use the phrase “on base plus slugging” if the plus is sarcastic.
The 2016 Cubs needed contact hitters to break up the string of strikeout-prone power guys. As Theo Epstein told the media on the day Zobrist’s signing was announced, “He’s exactly the type of offensive player we’re looking for who grinds every pitch, works his at bat, makes a ton of contact, draws his walk, gets on base, is versatile and can play all over the field.”
Once Zobrist put on a Cubs uniform, he began checking off every one of those boxes. In fact, Theo and the Cubs thought they’d balanced their lineup by signing two of those kinds of players in Zobrist and Jason Heyward. But—and this is the key point—with Heyward lost in a year long offensive malaise, that put even more pressure on Zobrist to deliver at peak level in order to make the 2016 lineup work.
Deliver he did. Which made Zobrist’s elite 13.0% strikeout rate essential to the Cubs’ offensive attack. And it played a big role in cutting the team’s overall strikeout rate down from 2015’s 24.5% to a league average 21.1.
Oh… and there was also the little matter of Zobrist shooting the single most important hit in Cubs history down the left field line in Cleveland. And turning “Chicago Cubs World Series MVP” into something that happened in real life instead of movies where the team’s rotation was anchored by Gary Busey. (A scenario that might be closer to reality once again as soon as Hollywood greenlights No Haircuts: The John Lackey Story.)
The 2016 season by itself would have made Zobrist’s four-year, $56 million deal one of the greatest transactions in Cubs history. In fact, I’d argue that one of the key elements to winning that World Series title was that the Cubs made two of their greatest free agent acquisitions of all time in consecutive offseasons.
And for a year, it looked as though the fanbase would have to content itself with the idea that paying $56 million for one World Series MVP season was still worth it as a wrist injury and turning 36 years old made Zobrist into a replacement level player in 2017. Happily, though, a more judicious playing time regimen has completely reenergized him this season, and Zobrist is back to producing at an advanced level for his age.
With Joe Maddon pledging that “I want to preserve him…I do want to be frugal regarding using Zo too often. He’s just too valuable to beat up early” from as far back as the beginning of May, the Cubs have made sure to give Zobrist a couple of days off every week. And he has responded with an offensive renaissance, putting up the third highest True Average of his career (.308) and 2.6 WARP through the end of July.
That’s hardly the end of it. Thanks to the days off and a new offseason workout regimen that saw him concentrate on “building a foundation” to remain in playing shape while opting out of swinging a bat to let his wrist heal, Zobrist has substantially rebounded defensively as well. In 2018, FRAA has rated him as a plus defender for the first time in a Cubs uniform (1.1).
Perhaps due to his down year in 2017 or because he no longer fulfills his role of playing every position on the field, it’s been easy to overlook the contributions Ben Zobrist has made. If Javy Báez is El Mago, Zobrist is the best magician your youth group can afford. But after playing an historic role on the greatest Cubs team of our lives, Zobrist has once again become one of the best players on a team contending for their fourth playoff berth in a row.
In the modern history of the Cubs organization, very few free agents have had more of positive impact than Ben Zobrist. His signing wasn’t as celebrated as that of Jon Lester but looking back on it now, that was the moment where the Cubs solidified themselves as a dominant team of the modern era. Very few free agents in the team’s history have ever had as much of a positive impact.
That he did all of this while becoming one of MLB’s biggest rulebreakers only made it all the sweeter.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClair—USA Today Sports