At the beginning of the 2016 season, the Cubs were hot. Red hot. And while their 8-2 start to the season, was certainly a team effort, one guy stood out in particular: Dexter Fowler.
Through his first ten games, Fowler slashed .424/.558/.667 from the leadoff spot and hogged just about all of the offensive attention.
It’s a good thing all eyes were on Fowler, though, because at the same time, the Cubs new second baseman, Ben Zobrist, was struggling pretty badly. He was still taking his walks and getting on base (like he’ll always do), but overall Zobrist was slashing just .237/.362/.289 through his first ten games, with an 86 wRC+.
Yeah, uh, not so much anymore.
Since the tenth game of the season – get ready to smile cheek-to-cheek – Ben Zobrist has slashed .381/.483/.593 with a 16.4% walk rate that is more than double his 7.5% strikeout rate (lol WHAT!?). Those numbers are good for a .458 wOBA and a 191 wRC+ over that stretch.
But even his early season struggles don’t pull his line down too far. For the entire season (193 plate appearances) check out Zobrist’s numbers and where they rank among all the qualified players in baseball:
- Batting Average: .346 (4th)
- On Base Percentage: .453 (1st)
- Slugging Percentage: .519 (26th)
- Strikeout Rate: 9.3% (4th)
- Walk Rate: 16.6% (5th)
- wRC+: 165 (8th)
- wOBA: 420 (6th)
- WAR: 2.7 (4th)
Just about any which way you cut it, Ben Zobrist has been a top ten (and probably a top five) offensive player through a fairly significant chunk of the season – 200 plate appearances is nothing to sneeze at. But, will he be able to keep it up?
In the interest of fair analysis the answer to “Will he be able to keep it up?” is almost always “No,” regardless of the situation. That said this isn’t really as crazily unsustainable as many hot streaks are.
First of all, his BABIP (.356) is pretty high. Although it’s just the 27th highest BABIP in baseball, Zobrist’s career mark is closer to .300 and guys tend to set an average BABIP level and mostly stick to it (and it’s not like Zobrist doesn’t have a large enough sample size in his career – 5203 PAs). So, based on that alone, you can probably expect some serious regression.
In addition, Zobrist is not likely to keep striking out less than 10% of the time all season long. Although he is clearly seeing the ball very, very, very well right now, his career rate is closer to 15%, so he’ll likely trend back upwards a few percentage points there.
But, that might be me being a little bit skeptical, a little bit harsh. Zobrist’s batted ball and plate discipline data are actually somewhat remarkable and may imply that this heat could last a little bit longer.
Starting with the batted ball data, check out some of Zobrists’ 2016 rates compared to his career rates right below. (I’ve bolded the numbers that are better than the other).
Ben Zobrist (2016)
- Line Drive Rate: 26.4%
- Infield Fly Ball Rate: 6.5%
- Soft Hit Rate: 9.9%
- Medium Hit Rate: 54.2%
- Hard Hit Rate: 35.9%
Ben Zobrist (Career)
- Line Drive Rate: 19.6%
- Infield Fly Ball Rate: 6.9%
- Soft Hit Rate: 16.3%
- Medium Hit Rate: 54.3%
- Hard Hit Rate: 29.4%
Yep … that wasn’t a mistake. With the exception of his medium hit rate – which is almost precisely identical – Ben Zobrist has a better batted pall profile in every single way this season than he has for his career. In that way, he might actually be able to sustain a higher BABIP than his career average and thus an overall high level of production.
But what about his walk rate and strikeout rate? Surely those will take on some serious regression, right? Well, maybe a little, but probably not as much as you might think. Let’s perform the same process we did above, this time taking a look at his plate discipline:
Ben Zobrist (2016)
- O-Swing Rate: 16.2%
- Z-Swing Rate: 58.7%
- O-Contact Rate: 81.9%
- Z-Contact Rate: 94.2%
- Swinging Strike Rate: 3.1%
Ben Zobrist (Career)
- O-Swing Rate: 22.8%
- Z-Swing Rate: 58.1%
- O-Contact Rate: 74.3%
- Z-Contact Rate: 90.4%
- Swinging Strike Rate: 5.7%
That’s what they call a sweep, my dear friends. In every single way, Ben Zobrist – the already-patient, professional and successful Major League hitter – has improved upon his outstanding career plate discipline rates across the board. And, in some instances, dramatically so. That’s not easily accomplished, especially when the original rates were already quite good. In that way, Zobrist may be able to sustain his uniquely high and uniquely low walk and strikeout rates in 2016, respectively.
So, yes, Ben Zobrist is playing out of his mind right now. But, no, it’s not wholly unsustainable. In fact, there is some serious evidence that he is one of the best five hitters in the entire league and by the looks of it, he might stay pretty close to that range all year.
Also: Zobrist turned 35 yesterday. Happy birthday, indeed!