If you’ve noticed, we’ve sort of created an unofficial series here at Bleacher Nation, wherein we’re taking a closer look at some of the more disappointing offensive first halves for various Cubs.
So far, we’ve taken a look at Addison Russell’s awful first half, before moving onto the enigmatic Javy Baez and his struggles with pitch recognition. Today, we’re going to keep the train moving by looking at second baseman and outfielder Ben Zobrist.
“For me, it’s been a tough first half, one of the toughest of my career,” said Zobrist, who entered Sunday batting .214 and has spent time on the disabled list because of a wrist injury. “Injury-wise, I’ve been battling stuff all year. [There have been] inconsistencies at the plate, and also I’ve been very unlucky.”
I have to say, that’s quite astute. Zobrist has struggled a lot this season and it seems, to me, related to an even spread of injuries, bad luck, and bad play. Let’s dig in.
After a brilliant 4.0 WAR Cubs debut in 2016, Ben Zobrist has recorded just 0.3 WAR in the first half of the 2017 season. Most of that, unfortunately, is due to his horrendous contributions at the plate: .214/.307/.367. But is this really fair? Is there reason for hope? I think there may be.
Zobrist may not be producing, but there’s more here than what meets the eye. First of all, he’s still walking a lot (11.3%). And while that’s down from his wonderful 15.2% walk rate last season, it’s still firmly above average overall. Plus, when you consider his well below average (in a good way) 14.6% strikeout rate, it’s hard to call his plate discipline the problem.
But how about his batted ball data?
Well, Zobrist has posted a relatively low .289 BABIP for his career, but that number has dropped all the way down to .226 this season. I know he’s a year older, which can hurt a player in more ways than one, but I’d be surprised to learn that this mark was rightfully earned. So let’s see if there’s something driving that massive drop.
Well whaddaya know?
Despite hitting the ball much harder this season than he has for his career, Zobrist BABIP dropped 63 points (which, if you’re not following, is exactly the opposite outcome you’d expect). Furthermore, he’s hitting the ball on the ground a lot more this season (51.7%) than he has for his career (45.6%). And while that’s certainly a big red flag for his overall production (we’ll get to that in a minute), it’s certainly not an explanation for the sudden and dramatic drop in BABIP. Not unlike our study of Baez, then, I’d say you can expect at least something of a BABIP-fueled rebound for Zobrist in the second-half.
But about those extra grounders …
Yeah, that is going to be a problem. If he had enough at-bats to qualify, his 51.7% ground ball rate would rank 18th highest in all of baseball. Given the significant value in fly balls, that’s very much trending in the wrong direction. Zobrist is also hitting far fewer line drives this season (16.7%) than he did last year (21.6%). So, overall, you can say he’s not quite squaring the ball up. But is there a reason for the dramatic drop?
Perhaps, and it’s an important one.
On Thursday, May 25, Ben Zobrist went 3-4 at the plate against the Giants, and added his sixth homer of the season. Through that point, he was hitting a lovely .266/.354/.468 worth a solid 115 wRC+. Essentially, he was exactly himself through the first 158 PAs of the year (career 117 wRC+), which is really quite great.
Fast-forward to that Saturday, and Ben Zobrist was out of the starting lineup after reportedly feeling “something” wrong with his wrist in his first at-bat the day prior. He took the weekend off and returned to action on Monday. In the 53 plate appearances the followed (until he hit the disabled list in the middle of June with that same wrist injury), Zobrist slashed .109/.226/.196 while batting exclusively from the left-side of the plate.
Also during that stretch, this: a 55.0% groundball rate. Before that, Zobrist had an admittedly still high but MUCH more tolerable 48.7% ground ball rate. I don’t think it’s difficult to guess that his wrist injury limited his overall production – in part – by weakening his ability to elevate the ball … like, at all.
Well, since then, Zobrist has hit the disabled list and rested up a bit. So, how’s he done since he’s been back? Well, not great, but I wouldn’t worry about it yet. After all, it’s been just a 24 plate appearance sample, so there’s not much there.
The groundball rate is still elevated (even more so than before the DL stint), so that’ll certainly be the thing to look for in the second half. Hopefully, after some more rest at the break, Zobrist’s wrist will heal up, he’ll elevate the ball with more consistency, and slowly begin to produce like he did at the beginning of the season.