Before he was a major leaguer, Ben Zobrist was an intriguing prospect. He was a shortstop who posted on-base percentages over .400 at every stop. How could the statistically-minded ignore that? If you lopped off 100 points from his minor-league career OBP of .429, he still profiled as an offensive plus at short. So long as he could field the position, that is.
Scouts were dubious about that. Baseball America ranked Zobrist among his organization's top prospects twice, ranking #16 for the Houston Astros in both 2004 and 2005. If there were any chance of Zobrist being an average-or-better defender at short, he would have ranked higher. As is, he drew evaluations like this:
He continues to remind the Astros of quintessential utilityman Bill Spiers, but they also say it's too early to write off Zobrist as a regular shortstop.
"Too early to write off" is code for "probably not." And when Zobrist finally established himself in the Tampa Bay lineup, it was at second base, with the already-established Jason Bartlett playing short. Zobrist eventually became something of a utility player, playing all around the field, but he wasn't a utility player like Bill Spiers. Maybe Bill Spiers after he was bitten by a radioactive spider.
The gaudy defensive numbers were one of the reasons Zobrist became a sabermetric darling. Since 2009, there have been six seasons worth more than eight wins above replacement according to Baseball Reference; Zobrist has two of those seasons, and he's the only player with more than one. Even if you take Baseball Reference's WAR totals with a grain of salt when it comes to players who play in defensive shifts -- and you should -- just about all of his other defensive metrics check out. Zobrist can play second base and he can play right, both with aplomb, even as he's hitting better than the first basemen for most teams.
Zobrist was moved off second in August. When a 31-year-old player moves off a middle-infield position, it's usually because he can't field his position any more, but Zobrist moved because manager Joe Maddon moved him back to shortstop.
It was Zobrist's first time at short since 2009, and it was his first extended playing time at short since 2008. The move allowed Ryan Roberts to play second, which allowed the Rays to get Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez out of the lineup. In theory, that makes sense. But it also sounds like something that came from the brain of a talk-radio caller -- more Stan in Valrico than a two-time AL manager of the year.
So far, though, the switch is looking promising. From Jonathan C. Mitchell at DRaysBay:
From the eye test, Zobrist has looked like a decent shortstop. He has not looked like one that will win a Gold Glove (although with the way they vote on that awards it would not surprise me to see him win it this year) but more of a sure-handed shortstop who will not make mistakes but not reach too many balls hit out of his zone.
Mitchell looks at the defensive stats, and as of Aug. 24, they were encouraging. Almost three weeks later, the trend is still encouraging, with Zobrist having positive UZR and DRS marks, as well as coming up on the positive side of the ledger for both range runs and error runs.
Of course, a month of defensive stats is worth roughly as a review of a movie based solely on the trailer. Could be right. Far too early to tell. Mitchell suggests the eye test. Let's cherry-pick one of the carefully selected plays from a video hosted at MLB.com!
That sure looks shortstoppy. But by definition, the video highlights are going to include the good plays. You aren't going to get a lot of "Ben Zobrist fails to glove 41-hopper six feet to his left" videos that you can search for.
Even if the range is an open question, Zobrist's sure hands made the initial transition, as he's made two errors in his first 203 innings. The over-30, sure-handed shortstop is something of a genre. Jamey Carroll recently signed a two-year deal this past offseason, even though he's pushing 40. John McDonald is still playing a lot of innings at short for the Diamondbacks, and the recently retired Edgar Renteria and Craig Counsell were never going to win Gold Gloves, but they were rarely removed for defensive replacements, either.
If Zobrist can be the defensive equivalent of one of those types, the Rays will have something. In theory, it should be easier to find a second baseman who can hit as opposed to a shortstop who can hit, though there are only 10 points of OPS separating the two positions this season.
In the short-term context, though, the Rays are trusting Ryan Roberts to be better than Rodriguez or Johnson would be. Rodriguez has a sub-.280 OBP, and Johnson has hit .193/.244/.257 since the start of July. Roberts has a chance to top either, even if his production hasn't been much better this season.
Zobrist may or may not be the shortstop of the future for the Rays, and he could easily move back to second base or right field depending on the different roster permutations the Rays will try. But the important point -- and this is kind of burying the lede, here -- is that it's pretty insane for Joe Maddon to try this out in the middle of August during a close pennant race. Awesome! A mark of supreme confidence in player evaluation. But insane. Beautifully, wonderfully insane.
Just so crazy it might work, the cliché goes. And the success of Zobrist at short would help the Rays in 2012, and it would certainly help the Rays in 2013. It's amazing that we even get a chance to find out.