After three straight tense, extra-inning affairs to start the weekend series in Milwaukee, the Cubs closed things down on Sunday with a breezy 5-0 win over the Brewers.
And while at least half of the credit should go to Jose Quintana – we’ll get into his latest gem and improving K/BB numbers later – the offense certainly gave him enough room to work comfortably.
Four players had multi-hit games – Jon Jay, Kris Bryant, Willson Contreras, and Ben Zobrist – but it was only the latter who padded his home run total with a shot over the wall in right yesterday afternoon.
Take a look:
Brilliant play call by @benzobrist18.
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 24, 2017
That homer was Zobrist’s 11th of the season, and, according to Statcast, it was a legit one: 106 MPH, 403 feet and a near-perfect 26 degree launch angle. Zobrist also laced a 98 MPH line-drive single into right field earlier in the game, and both hits were especially good to see, because the quality of his contact has remained an issue lately and has sapped his slash line of power.
Check out his rolling 15-game isolated power (ISO) this season (via FanGraphs):
You can see where Zobrist started first dealing with his wrist issue earlier this year, right around game 50. After rebounding just past the mid-season mark, Zobrist’s ISO has been in something of a free-fall of late, and his hard-hit rate may be to blame (because his average fly ball rate has stayed relatively consistent and doesn’t necessarily seem to be the problem).
A few key cutoff points in the data show something similar:
First Half: .152 ISO, 34.1 Hard-hit rate – .367
Second Half: .134 ISO, 30.5 Hard-hit rate
Since August 1: .129 ISO, 30.7 Hard-hit rate
Since September 1: .108 ISO, 27.3 Hard-hit rate
Basically, Zobrist’s stopped hitting the ball hard and his ISO is (expectedly) taking the brunt of the damage. HOWEVA, while his power picture has looked relatively bleak, his overall numbers in the second half aren’t nearly as bad.
After slashing .214/.307/.367 in 239 first-half plate appearances (77 wRC+), Zobrist has upped his game by walking about the same amount, striking out a little less, and watching his BABIP normalize from it’s depressed first-half state. Now, in 233 second-half plate appearances, he’s slashing .257/.341/.391 (92 wRC+), which is far closer to a usable slash line.
Still, with Zobrist, that’s only half the picture.
If you take a look at his splits in the second half, you’ll notice that he’s been perfectly playable against right-handed pitchers (108 wRC+), but has struggled tremendously against southpaws (50 wRC+). Recall: when Zobrist dealt with his wrist issue earlier this year, he was not able to bat from the right side at all for a long stretch.
If Joe Maddon can protect Zobrist’s matchups a bit, he’s still a valuable contributor against the majority of starters. Given that the Cubs have Javy Baez and Albert Almora ready and waiting to start at second base and in the outfield against all lefties, optimizing match-ups shouldn’t be an issue.
So where does this leave us?
Well, on the bright side, I’m not convinced that his more recent levels of production – say, since the middle of August (107 wRC+ overall) – are unsustainable. Zobrist’s .226 BABIP in the first half of the season was painfully low and it’s just now bouncing back to his career levels (.289 BABIP). And sure, Zobrist probably runs a little slower and hits it a little softer than he did as a younger man, but a 63-point drop in his BABIP in the first half (versus his career) was probably unwarranted if he’s healthy.
And in any case, that’s why it was nice to see the two hard hit balls and a homer yesterday. If Zobrist can find a way to sprinkle a little more power into his game like yesterday, his patience, K/BB numbers, and AVG/OBP can keep his bat competitive enough to be a starter in most games, especially against righties.