Why is the corpse of Ben Zobrist batting [leadoff or cleanup]?
That was a common refrain as the veteran utilityman continued to bat in high-leverage spots in the order despite a performance that both the stat line and eye test agreed was significantly less than mediocre. Zobrist, as you may recall, tweaked his left wrist on a swing against the Dodgers’ Alex Wood back on May 26, yet inexplicably remained on on the active roster for another 17 days before being placed on the DL.
His slash line during those 53 plate appearances: .109/.226/.196 with a .202 wOBA. His wRC+ of 16 meant that he was 84 percent worse than the average hitter over that period. Every player goes through slumps, but seeing Zobrist in the lineup while listing like a torpedoed ship was unconscionable in light of an injury that had long since become public knowledge.
And if being flat-out awful at the plate wasn’t bad enough, having a sore left wrist meant that Zo couldn’t hit from the right side. He shouldn’t have been swinging the bat with his injured arm serving as the fulcrum and he was awful when he did, so there was really no reason to ever have him face lefties. Since he only did so five times during the period in question, though, it’s obvious that he was brutally bad from the left side as well.
To say things were looking better in July is to be very liberal in our interpretation, or just say that anything would have been an improvement over the previous month. In his first 86 plate appearances back from the DL, Zobrist slashed .208/.271/.312 with a wRC+ of 52. Only Jason Heyward — who has collected only five XBH’s in his last 137 plate appearances — thought the six extra-base hits (five doubles, homer) Zobrist hit in that time was a good total.
Zobrist’s complete lack of power was painfully evident and you didn’t need to look at the ISO of .104 to know it. In order to contextualize that for those who aren’t entirely familiar, we’re talking Ender Inciarte/Dansby Swanson-level lack of pop. Fine for a speedster, not great for a guy who has managed to excel despite moving with a goofy awkwardness rarely seen outside of D-level beer league softball.
In the midst of that skid, however, something was starting to change. The All-Star break afforded Zobrist some much-needed rest and he showed it by picking up three multi hit games in the last half of July. The power was still pretty much MIA, but he didn’t seem quite as much like an extra from The Walking Dead.
Then August opened with a modest hit streak and saw him reaching base far more often overall, though the power was still conspicuously absent. Zobrist collected nothing greater than a single through the first 47 plate appearances in the month, good for a .000 ISO. However, he smacked four doubles, two homers, and a triple in his final 47 PA’s. Most of that came from the left side, where the switch-hitter had a 131 wRC+ for the month, though he posted a 69 from the right side too.
We’re not even halfway through September yet, but the results have gotten even more encouraging in that short time. A .280/.366/.427 slash has led to a .389 wOBA and 139 wRC+ and Zobrist is absolutely raking as a left-handed hitter. He’s been stellar as a leadoff hitter as well, posting a .478 wOBA and 198 wRC+ in 19 September at-bats (yes, I know that’s not really valid yet).
While the wrist still appears to be limiting his production from the right side, to the extent that I believe Zobrist needs to be out of the lineup against lefties, he’s no longer a general liability out there. In fact, he’s been really damn good and has been a nice spark plug for the offense over the last month or so.
Justin Grimm, on the other hand, has experienced no such resurgence. The lanky righty reliever has always gone through streaks (what reliever hasn’t?), but this season has seen prolonged periods of futility marked by brief sparks of success. On the whole, the results have been enough to make me repeatedly question his spot on the roster.
That’s so frustrating, too, because Grimm is a guy I’ve always pulled for both professionally and personally. Not only is that knee-buckling curve capable of embarrassing MLB hitters, but Grimm always seemed like someone I’d like to have beers with. Thing is, those beers are much less likely to come as part of a postgame celebration with the way he’s been pitching.
After racking up 12.14 K/9 in 2015 and 11.11 last season, Grimm has dropped to 9.55 this season. That might be acceptable but for the fact that his 4.78 BB/9 is the highest he’s ever posted. Then you’ve got a frightening 2.20 HR/9 that is 140 percent higher than his career average coming into this season (0.92). You can deal with the lower strikeouts or the increased walks. Even the homers might be acceptable given the relatively small sample. Combine them all, though, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
I was sure Grimm was going to be DFA’d in August to clear a spot for Dillon Maples to come up. The Cubs opted instead for a DL stint to clear up an infection in the veteran’s finger, choosing to bring him back to the active roster once September opened things up. Right-handed pitchers Seth Frankoff and Jose Rosario ended up being removed from the 40-man for Maples and Mike Freeman. And when the Cubs acquired outfielder Leonys Martin, it was lefty strikeout artist Jack Leathersich who was DFA’d to clear a spot.
And in the most recent roster move, starter Jen Ho-Tseng was added to the 40-man roster at the expense of former stud prospect Pierce Johnson. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s four pitchers the Cubs jettisoned, only two of whom were replaced by other pitchers.
Grimm put together three scoreless outings after returning to active duty, allowing only one hit and walking two while striking out four. All he’s done since then is allow seven earned runs on six hits (one HR) and a walk against two strikeouts in two innings of work. As much as I want to see Grimm turn it around, it has become painfully obvious that he has lost the edge.
He hasn’t been able to locate the fastball and the curve hasn’t been nearly as effective as a result. It’s still got a ton of bite, but hitters don’t need to swing when Grimm can’t get ahead in the count and deploy it as an out pitch. There’s no way he makes the playoff roster at this point and I’m honestly somewhat shocked that he’s still with the organization at all.
I really hate admitting that for the reasons I stated earlier, but Grimm has become a liability the Cubs simply can’t afford given the already-inconsistent results they’ve gotten from the rest of the pen.
This may seem like an incongruous mash-up of two disparate players, but I wanted to illustrate the way narratives can change. Zobrist and Grimm had been flailing similarly for a while there, struggling to regain the form that had made them integral members of the organization. One of them has clawed his way back to that role, while the other has continued to sink.
There’s also the notion that it’s important to view performance in light of situational variables and not just as an aggregate. Zobrist has been much better over the 45 days or so than he was previously, so it’s silly and irresponsible to cite his early stats as a reason that he shouldn’t be playing now. In Grimm’s case, the results have been pretty poor throughout.
And now I’m struggling to tie this up, so, like, thanks for reading and see you later.