One Fine May: Ben Zobrist Having the Best Month of His Career
Even if Ben Zobrist hangs an oh-fer in the Cubs’ five remaining games in May (est. 18 at-bats), he’ll finish the month batting .347 with 5 home runs, 21 RBI, and 22 runs scored. That’s, um, that’s really good. Not that I expect the best offseason signing in baseball to fall off like that, it’s just nice to know that he’d still be incredibly esteemed even after following up some epic early performances with a few really bad ones. Which is to say that Zobrist would still be baseball’s version of Marlon Brando.
Anyone can have a good month though, right? Small sample size and all that mess. But if you look back over the course of his career, Zobrist has never had a month quite like what the Cubs are getting from him in May. I took a look back over his career numbers to find the most outstanding individual months he’s put up since 2008 and the results are pretty remarkable.
Other than slugging, every one of these stats represents a career-best. His 2.0 WAR for the month is tops in MLB and has gotten him to 2.7 on the season, fourth overall and within shouting distance of the top spot (Mike Trout, 3.1). For what it’s worth, Dexter Fowler is tied for second in the league with 3 WAR and Kris Bryant’s 2.3 is tied for ninth.
And to what does the versatile veteran attribute this incredible run?
“I’m just seeing the ball really well,” Zobrist opined to the media in San Francisco. “I don’t want to analyze it too much. That’s your job.”
Yeah, but the think is, Ben, I really don’t want to analyze it too much. Not to mention I’m not really that good at my job. Okay, that’s not really true, at least not the part about me not being good at my job. It’s just that there are times when I kinda like to keep the analysis at arm’s length and just revel in the inexplicable awesomeness of great baseballing.
I do, however, want to indulge in one little bit statistical analysis before I go. The numbers Zobi Wan Benobi is putting up are straight bananas (B-A-N-A-N-A-S!), but what makes them even more impressive is the restraint he’s exercised in achieving them. Only 21 players have a swing rate of less than 40 percent in May and only four players are swinging 35 percent of the time or less. Ben Zobrist is at 32.3 percent, lowest in the majors.
What’s more, he’s offered at only 14.6 percent of the pitches he’s seen outside the zone, also the lowest in the league. And when you consider that Zo is seeing fewer strikes than all but 23 players this month, that figure looks even better. In short, the guy isn’t getting many good pitches to hit and he’s not getting anxious and expanding his zone as a result.
You wanna know what I find really incredible though? I’ll give you a hint: it’s what impressed me the most about Barry Bonds’ historic seasons. No, it’s not the growth of Zobrist’s feet and head over time. It’s one thing to not swing at bad pitches, but quite another to pull the trigger when you do get that rare good pitch to hit. And it’s still another to make solid contact. I don’t think Zobrist is preparing in quite the same way Bonds did, but I’m no less amazed by what he’s done so far in May.
Hitting a baseball is hard. Even the best players are going to swing and miss regularly, as evidenced by a league-average swinging-strike rate of right at 10 percent. Zobrist, however, whiffs at a mere 3.1 percent rate. In 24 May games, that number is actually down to 2.7 percent as the result of 13 games in which he didn’t swing and miss at all. You wanna talk about a cat who’s going to wear pitchers out? That’s Ben Zobrist.
Dude hardly ever swings, but he hardly ever misses when he does swing. You can’t beat him out of the zone because he’s going to take his walks and you can’t beat him in the zone because he’s going to get his hits. And to top it all off, Zobrist is a great teammate and a genuinely good guy. If you’re just getting back into the Cubs after years away from the team and you want to know who Zobrist is as a person and a player, think of Milton Bradley. Then imagine the exact opposite person.
Will things eventually cool off for the Cubs second baseman/right fielder? Sure, they sorta have to. But the insane results are being driven by a solid plate approach that will allow him to keep pitchers honest and that will set a great example to those who are sharing a dugout with him.
The next time you watch a Cubs game, take a look at Ben Zobrist’s at-bats and how patient he is up there at the plate. It’ll give you a new appreciation for just how good a hitter he is and what he brings to this team. Now if we could just get some of that to rub off on Jason Heyward.