As the playoffs and award season gets underway, we want to take a gander at some players who had outstanding seasons in 2009 but whose teams ended up just shy of making the postseason and who will (most likely) not pick up any fancy trophies. Quite a consolation prize: a round of golf and a write-up on a low circulation sports blog.
Previously, Adam Lind and Prince Fielder.
Next up, Ben Zobrist, as written by Jonah Keri.
The AL MVP debate that launched a thousand blog posts ended long ago. Other than Mark Teixeira's mom, South Bronx Vinny ("Hey Mike, first time, long time") and sportswriters whose baseball learning curve peaked in Cap Anson's prime, everyone's ready to hand the hardware to Joe Mauer.
Mauer led the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. He's carried a team filled with black holes like Delmon Young and Nick Punto to a division title, the absence of his running mate Justin Morneau making the feat all the more impressive. If he hadn't missed the first month of the season, we might be talking about one of the best performances in major league history. As is, Mauer's '09 ranks with Mike Piazza's greatest hits among the best campaigns ever put up by a catcher.
Ben Zobrist was even better.
At least he was according to superawesome stats and analysis site FanGraphs.com. FanGraphs ranks every major league player using a measure called Wins Above Replacement. WAR combines a player's offensive and defensive value, adjusts for park effects, the position he plays and other factors, then weighs that player's value against your typical 25th man or waiver-wire refugee. A one-win player is a good relief pitcher, half-decent fifth starter or a low-end starting position player. A four-win player is All Star-caliber. Anything above that and you're elite.
Mauer was worth 8.2 Wins Above Replacement for the Twins, an astonishing number that's up there with Albert Pujols' best efforts. Yet Mauer ranked just 2nd in the AL, trailing Zobrist and his off-the-charts 8.5 WAR. Zobrist's season was so astonishing that he actually finished a tick above Pujols (8.51 vs. 8.46 WAR). That's right: Ben Freaking Zobrist, by one measure, is the best position player in the world this season.
Let's get some caveats out of the way first. FanGraphs ranks Zobrist's defense alone as more than two-and-a-half wins better than a fringe player. The stat used to measure that number is Ultimate Zone Rating, a solid defensive measuring tool that's up there with anything we have today. But just as you would want three years of ballpark data before compiling park effects numbers, so too does UZR work best when looked at over a three-year stretch. Meanwhile, Mauer gets dinged because catchers' defense is not counted in UZR. Zobrist is a very good defender at second base and right field. We probably shouldn't expect him to be a mix of Frank White and Roberto Clemente for the next 10 years, though.
With all that said, here's what we know about Zobrist. Tall, thin guy, utility infielder for years, always had a good batting eye and the ability to draw a walk, but never showed much power. Taking swings in a Nashville batting cage before the 2008 season, Zobrist met up with an eager young swing instructor named Jamie Cevallos. Cevallos wasn't a major league hitting coach, didn't have any major league clients and couldn't even get into a big league ballpark without a ticket. But Cevallos' approach clicked with his new pupil. Zobrist slugged 12 homers in 198 at-bats last season in part-time duty.
That was just the warm-up. Zobrist went nuts this season, hitting .297 AVG/.405 AVG/.543 SLG. Forget the numbers for a minute and consider his approach. Zobrist almost never swings at a bad pitch. When he gets one he likes, he hammers it. In the field, he proved invaluable, going from utility man to semi-regular right fielder to the team's starting second baseman when Akinori Iwamura hit the DL. He's been so good that Rays fans can't even settle on a nickname. His monikers have included BenZo, Zorilla, and my fave, Late-Inning Lightning -- so named for not only hitting homers this year, but doing so again and again in huge late-inning spots. His defense might not grace many highlight reels, but it's not unreasonable to expect an athletic converted shortstop to be a big asset with the glove in the foreseeable future.
The 2008 Rays were one of the best stories in recent major league history, going from a laughing stock that had never even had a winning season to AL champions. That Ben Zobrist heads into 2010 as arguably the team -- and the league's -- best player might be even more unlikely. Unlikely, but true.
Keep tabs on Jonah Keri's various writings at JonahKeri.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Keith Allison)