Ben Zobrist is Off to a Great Start and the Cubs Should Roll with Him While They Can

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Ben Zobrist is Off to a Great Start and the Cubs Should Roll with Him While They Can

Chicago Cubs

A soon-to-be 37-year-old Ben Zobrist is off to a fantastic start here in 2018, and the guy deserves some love, especially after a down 2017 season. And there’s no better place to start than Saturday’s magical comeback victory.

With Anthony Rizzo still on the shelf at the time, Ben Zobrist drew the start at first base on Saturday (yup, still the last time the Cubs played a baseball game) and he couldn’t have done any better. Stepping up to the plate five times, Zobrist reached in every plate appearance, and did some serious damage, too:

Plate Appearance 1: Walk
Plate Appearance 2: Single
Plate Appearance 3: Single
Plate Appearance 4: Triple, RBI
Plate Appearance 5: Walk, RBI

All together, Zobrist was 5-5 with a triple, two walks, 2 RBI, and 3 runs scored. Oh, and he also played three different positions that day and saw 22 pitches total … so, yeah, he was clicking at the plate.

For the season, he’s now one plate appearance shy of 50, which feels like a fine time to take an extra close look at some of his numbers.

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Through 13 games and 49 plate appearances, Ben Zobrist is slashing .326/.408/.465 (143 wRC+). He’s got one double, one triple, and one homer, six runs scored, and 1 RBI. But here’s where things get really fun. Zobrist is currently walking (12.2%) more than he’s striking out (10.2%), because he’s laying off almost as many pitches out of the zone as ever and swinging at WAY MORE pitches in the zone than he has for his career:

Z-Swing Rate

2018: 69.6%
Career: 57.9%

And on top of that, his 92.7% zone-hit rate is better than his career 90.9% mark. So, basically, Zobrist is identifying which pitches to swing at better than ever *and* making contact with those pitches more than he has throughout his very impressive career.

Now, because it’s so early in the year, his 143 wRC+ is not near the very top of the leaderboards (47th in MLB, 24th in the NL), but it’s still way up there and especially impressive for a 36-year-old who dealt with a fairly serious wrist injury last season. And given how much else he adds to the game, you won’t be surprised to learn that his 0.5 WAR this season ranks tied for 23rd in the NL and only one person ahead of him on the list has fewer plate appearances (Ryan Flaherty, also tied for 23rd, has had one less).

But perhaps what’s working best for Zobrist is his career-low 40.5% ground ball rate and near-career-high 40.5% fly ball rate this season. It’s early, but one of the things Zobrist struggled with last season was getting the ball off the ground (51.1% ground ball rate, 33.3% fly ball rate). Given the launch angle revolution and all of the attendant benefits, it’s great to see him tap into that and succeed, perhaps, because of it.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that just 10.5% of his contact has been “soft,” but that’s just gravy on the season that Zobrist has put together so far.

Sure, it’s early, and these numbers could all be a small sample illusion, but (1) Zobrist passes the eye test, and (2) it’s not as if he wasn’t a consistently solid hitter before 2017. This doesn’t look *that* anomalous.

With Anthony Rizzo scheduled to come back today the next time the Cubs play, working Zobrist in might become a bit more difficult, but it’s not as complicated as it was at the start of the season. Ian Happ is struggling a bit and Albert Almora still has questions to answer about his abilities against righties. And as long as both are true, you might see Jason Heyward in center and Zobrist out in right (or left) a bit more often than expected. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Heck, you might see Heyward or Kyle Schwarber periodically sitting for Zobrist, too.

Obviously, we want the young guys to succeed, but winning right now matters and, for the moment, Zobrist gives the Cubs the best chance. He’ll still need extra rest and won’t be hot forever, but while he’s feeling good and swinging it well, get him in there and let him rake.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami