Ben Zobrist on Being in Sync

Better not throw a ball to Ben Zobrist right now. Better throw it in the zone.

He’s got the lowest swing rate in baseball this year, and a bottom-nine number since we started tracking that stat. He’s always swung less often than most, but this is extreme, even for him.

“I’m just seeing the ball really well,” he said before a game against the Giants, reducing the answer to a simplicity that can be common from a player in the middle of a hot streak. “I don’t want to analyze it too much,” he continued, laughing. “That’s your job.” Pretty much the motto for all players in the midst of a good run.

But this isn’t really just a streak. It’s the convergence of a few factors that have put the Cubs second baseman in the position to put up these numbers. Health, approach, competition, and mechanics are all coming together to set the scene.

Health is the most obvious thing, since Zobrist had meniscus surgery last April that slowed him even when he returned in May. “It bothered me for a while,” he admitted. “Late July it started feeling really good and I didn’t notice it at all the rest of the season.” Pure exit velocity has its flaws, but in this case, no graph better depicts the health of his knee than his exit velocity over time last year, thanks to Baseball Savant.

chart-4

Of course, the player was on anti-inflammatories through the second half of the season, and that can help a guy feel good. Once you hit the offseason, you have to stop taking those, and “your body has to get used to doing all that on its own again,” as Zobrist put it. He tried to stay hydrated and keep all his joints loose, but he did have to take a step back, and couldn’t claim that he felt better, health-wise, than he’d ever felt before.

There’s another reason to downplay the role of health in Zobrist’s current work, which has him as a top-15 bat in the league. As the infielder himself notes: “I’ve been healthy before and not swung like this.”

So a big portion of it is his approach to each at-bat. “I’m seeing it, and if it’s down, I’m not offering at it,” he pointed out. Turns out his swings down are maybe not as important as his swings away. Here are his swings as a lefty in 2014 (left) compared to 2016 (right).

Zobrist1416swing

What you also notice is that the pitches at which he’s chosen to offer are as important as the ones at which he’s chosen not to offer. And the stats back that up. If you look at zone swing rate with respect to reach rate instead of just raw swing rates, Zobrist’s current season looks even more impressive in the context of his career.

Ben Zobrist Career Swing Rates
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Z Swing Ratio
2016 15.9% 59.7% 3.75
2012 22.6% 57.6% 2.55
2013 23.6% 59.9% 2.54
2014 23.6% 58.4% 2.47
2015 22.6% 55.4% 2.45
2011 25.2% 59.4% 2.36
2010 25.2% 53.4% 2.12
2009 19.5% 59.3% 3.04

While Zobrist agreed that this was out of the norm for this point in the season, he didn’t think it was due to playing late into the offseason last year. “I did find a comfort level in the postseason last year that I hadn’t had for that long of a stretch,” he laughed. And added: “Every time you come back to Spring Training, you feel like you have to learn how to play again… like you’ve forgotten how to hit a baseball and you have to learn all over again.”

Still, this is Zobrist’s August self, hanging out in May. “I’m just laying off pitches than I usually do at this point in the season. Especially at this point in the season, April, May, if you looked at my July, August, Septembers it would look more similar to this. Usually in the first half, I swing at a lot more balls.” Take a look at his rolling swing rates, and thanks to Sean Dolinar, you’ll see he’s recently paired one of his better zone swing rates with the best reach rates of his career.

Zobrist Plate Discipline

“In Spring Training, when you start getting going, it takes a while to start feeling good,” the second baseman said. “This year, I just found the comfort level earlier than I used to.” So that, more than health apparently, helps explain his position on the curve, but does it explain everything about his offensive situation right now?

“Maybe,” Zobrist said. “It’s also the first time I’ve played the National League, so maybe they don’t know me as well and they’re waiting to see what I’ll do. I don’t know a lot of these pitchers, maybe they’re feeling me out, and I’m feeling them out. Maybe the scouting reports are a bit different.”

So, while his swing rates have gotten him ahead in the count more, that can’t explain all of the change in pitching mix that Zobrist is seeing. He’s ahead in the count 23% of the time this year according to StatCorner. He’s seen that level a couple times before, and it’s not far from his career level (21%). Maybe the scouting reports are different, considering his pitching mix this year, compared to career.

Ben Zobrist Career and 2016 Pitch Mix
Time Frame Fastball Slider Cutter Curve Change Splitter
2016 64.9% (92.0) 9.4% (83.4) 3.6% (88.7) 6.5% (77.7) 13.9% (84.3) 1.7% (85.3)
Career 55.4% (91.4) 10.0% (83.1) 5.1% (87.7) 10.1% (76.9) 15.9% (83.2) 2.4% (84.3)
SOURCE: BIS

Here’s where the mechanics come in. Zobrist might be seeing more fastballs because his bat had been dragging, which made him better at hitting offspeed stuff and going the other way, but wasn’t good for his overall production. Over the last three years, Zobrist has been better at changeups, curves, sliders, and cutters than fastballs, and has seen his three highest opposite-field percentages since he changed his swing in 2008.

That moment was an important one, and it turns out he recently had to return to the mechanical adjustments that made his career. Hitting coaches Jaime Cevallos and Dan Heefner helped him reduce the handsiness of his swing once, but the hitter had taken their advice too far, it seems. “Sometimes you overdo your adjustment and you have to go back and adjust again,” said Zobrist of his swing.

He won’t ever undo the work they did for him completely, of course. They made him a big leaguer, really. After struggling through a powerless 303 plate appearances in 2006 and 2007, he was ready for a change. “I was a very handsy hitter,” the Cub remembered. “Just throwing my hands down on the ball a lot.” Zobrist said that the coaches helped him “use [his] body to drive the ball.” He mimicked the same slightly upward, tilted shoulder, full-body swing that Josh Donaldson once showed me as we talked.

Unfortunately, Zobrist eventually began to see some consequences from leaving his handsiness behind. “As a hitter, if you’re using your hands really well and then you learn to use your body, you can overdo it,” he said. “In 2010, I was trying to use my body so much that I was dragging too much. So in 2011 and 2012, tried to figure out how to get my hands back activated, and it was always a struggle the first couple months of the year. Just always took a long time to feel like my hands and my body were in sync, would usually take until June or July before I felt good.”

Here’s Zobrist in 2010.

And now again in 2016. Perhaps he’s turning quicker, and he’s certainly got more active hands, at least judged by how literally active they are as soon as the pitcher starts his delivery.

The player laughed at some at the mentions of his pitch-type values, his batted-ball spray, and swing rates. “I just think about how it feels,” he said as he shook his head. “The process. How it feels in the cage. I’ve just found a comfortable feel that I haven’t usually found at this point in the season.”

But even when he says that, his focus on the mechanics and approach line up with the numbers. He knows that he’s got his hands and body working together to give him plate coverage and power. He says that he’s got a good sense of when to swing, when not to swing. He might even be ahead of the scouting report. As he said, “everything is synched up.”





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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djmax101member
6 years ago

Great article on a consistently underrated player.