In 2017, Chicago Cubs second baseman and outfielder Ben Zobrist had a bad year, slashing just .232/.318/.375 (82 wRC+).
Thanks in large part to a variety of injuries – most notably a wrist issue – it was the worst offensive performance he turned in since he was a part-time, 26-year-old for the Devil Rays back in 2007. He also managed fewer that 500 plate appearances for the first time since 2008. His strikeout rate was at its highest since 2012, his walk rate was at its lowest since 2013, his defense was just around average, and his 0.4 WAR was the 10x lower than the mark he put up in 2016.
Put another way: if he had enough plate appearances to qualify, Ben Zobrist would’ve ranked among the bottom 21 players in MLB (by fWAR) in 2017. It was a bad, bad year.
But THIS year couldn’t have gone better.
As a 37-year-old coming off a wrist injury and a terrible season stacked behind a youthful, seemingly-ready-to-break-out group of guys like Javy Baez, Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, and Albert Almora, Zobrist wasn’t generating a ton of confidence before 2018 began. Indeed, even his biggest fans – and I count myself among them – would’ve been lying if they expected him to be as good as he was this year. But after a little offseason rest, Zobrist came back swinging it at the plate and flashing leather in the field.
Overall, the Cubs second baseman held his walk rate steady, dropped his strikeout rate by roughly three percentage points and slashed an impressive .305/.378/.440 (123 wRC+). If you’re keeping score at home, he was 18% worse than the average big leaguer in 2017 and 23% better than the average big leaguer in 2018. That’s a 41-percentage-point swing! Holy crap! Health-wise, Zobrist managed to sneak into 11 more games and add another 24 plate appearances. He scored more runs, stole more bases, knocked more guys in, and hit over .300 for the first time in his 14-year-career. Again, as a 37-year-old!
Defensively, things went just as well. What was a 0.6 DEF rating in 2017 improved to 4.0 in 2018 – his highest mark in half a decade. And overall, he was worth 3.6 WAR, which plops him down in the top 40 in all of baseball.
In one season, a 37-year-old second baseman went from a bottom 20-ish player to a top 40-ish player, hitting .300 for the first time. Now *that’s* a comeback season.
… but I guess it wasn’t enough to even qualify as a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year:
2018 Players Choice Awards Comeback Player Finalists – Michael Brantley, Edwin Jackson and David Price are selected as finalists by AL players; Clay Buchholz, Matt Kemp and Miles Mikolas are NL finalists #PlayersChoiceAwards2018https://t.co/gZBRTZ4ihk pic.twitter.com/BSfh6eMlMP
— MLBPA Communications (@MLBPA_News) October 16, 2018
In the American League, the players voted for Michael Brantley, Edwin Jackson (yes, that one!), and David Price. In the NL, Clay Buchholz, Matt Kemp, and Miles Mikolas were nominated.
Obviously, awards carry only as much weight as you give them, and Comeback Player of the Year isn’t exactly MVP-caliber, but the winners (and second and third-place finishers) all receive a grant from the MLB Players Trust to donate to a charity of their choice. And the nomination, in general, is just an acknowledgement of the hard work players have put in to get back to the top of the mountain. Seeing Zobrist nominated then, would’ve been nice.
With that said, I don’t think he would have or should have won. In my opinion, Cardinals righty Miles Mikolas’ return to the big leagues after three seasons in Japan is the clear best story here. And the fact that he was great (not just good) this year puts it over the top: 18 wins, 2.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP over 200.2 IP, 6th most WAR in the NL (4.3). That’s just downright awesome. Relatedly, I think Clay Buchholz is a great nominee, as well, given that most figured he was totally done after two lost seasons, and then came back with a 2.01 ERA in his 98.1 innings of work.
I’m really only salty about Matt Kemp over Ben Zobrist. Kemp had a 98 wRC+ and -0.7 WAR in 2017 and a 122 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR in 2018. Is that a comeback? Yes. Is it better than going from 82 wRC+ and 0.4 WAR to 123 wRC+ and 3.6 WAR. Uh … no? Clearly! Zobrist’s valley was lower and his peak was higher. Zobrist also dealt with some major injuries in 2017 and is three years older than Kemp. I’m just not sure how Kemp’s inclusion makes more sense, but whatever. It’s just not the Cubs year.
And in any case, Zobrist was never going to win out over Mikolas (probably) or Buchholz (possibly), so it’s likely all academic anyway.
You can read more about each candidate and the reason for their nomination right here. Maybe Zobrist can win a better award next year – like best smile or something.