Ben Zobrist Will Not Be Underrated by the History Books

The nation finally got to know Ben Zobrist last year. Six years after the Rays utility-man-turned-superstar emerged as one of baseball’s best players, he got to play on the game’s biggest stage, and he became a champion. His previous three postseason appearances never made it past the first round; his World Series in 2008, he was still a part-time player. Last year, Zobrist was a key cog, a player for whom the Royals traded at the deadline, a player who they potentially might not have won the World Series without. But he wasn’t the story. The story was Eric Hosmer’s mad dash, the story was Ned Yost, the story was Wade Davis and the bullpen, the story was the Royals defense. Ben Zobrist was a secondary player, as he’s unfairly been his entire career.

This time around, Zobrist is no longer a secondary player. This time around, Zobrist is the Most Valuable Player. Zobrist finally had his moment, and baseball’s longtime most underrated player will never be underrated by the history books again. These two championships, and this MVP, are here forever.

Zobrist slashed .357/.419/.500 over 31 plate appearances in the World Series, and led the Cubs with 0.72 Win Probability Added. With the bat, context included, no Cubs hitter did more in the World Series to contribute to this championship than Zobrist. His biggest hit of all came in Game Seven.

It’s a testament to this Cubs lineup how Zobrist was set up. This Cubs lineup is so good, so deep, that the Indians intentionally walked the hitter in front of Zobrist, who since 2008 has the same wRC+ as Troy Tulowitzki, in the 10th inning of a tied World Series game. Of course, that’s partly because Anthony Rizzo is just a better hitter than Zobrist, and it set up an inning-ending double play, but this wasn’t a “walking the No. 8 hitter to get to the pitcher.” This was “walking the elite hitter to get to the fantastic hitter.” And the fantastic hitter got the job done, as he had throughout the World Series.

As he did in Game Two, when his fifth inning, RBI triple gave the Cubs a 2-0 lead, soon-to-be a 3-0 lead just four pitches later, and swung the Cubs’ odds of winning by 11% — the biggest moment in Chicago’s first win of the series.

As he did in Game Four of the NLDS, when his RBI double off Sergio Romo in the top of the ninth swung the Cubs’ odds of winning by 22%, setting up the heroics of Willson Contreras and Javier Baez that would complete Chicago’s remarkable comeback, clinching the series and sending them onto the next round. Zobrist scored the tying run in that game.

As he did in Game One of the NLCS, when his leadoff double in the eighth inning of a 3-3 tie against Joe Blanton swung the Cubs’ odds of winning by 13%, paving the way for the pair of intentional walks which led to Miguel Montero’s pinch hit grand slam that blew open the game and got the Cubs out to an early 1-0 lead in the series.

And as he did last night, in Game Seven of the World Series, the one that ended the 108-year drought for Chicago, when he slapped a 10th inning double down the left field line to score the go-ahead run, the run that held up, the run that killed the curse, if there ever was such a thing.

The rain had just cleared, and Bryan Shaw had come back out onto the mound after a 17-minute delay. After locking down the ninth inning, Shaw was tasked with the toughest part of the Cubs order in the 10th: Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Rizzo, and then Zobrist. Schwarber got ahead 0-1 and laced a cutter spotted down-and-in to right field, off the bat at 105 miles per hour. Albert Almora pinch-ran for Schwarber, and the move immediately paid dividends when Bryant flew out to the warning track in the next at-bat. Cleveland passed on facing Rizzo, opting instead to face Zobrist with two men on and one out. It was the highest leverage at-bat of a game with plenty of them, and yet another big moment just happening to find Zobrist, as they had throughout the postseason.

With Shaw, the approach is obvious. He’s going to throw cutters, and he’s going to throw them really hard. Shaw’s cutter was one of the nastiest pitches in this World Series, and in Game Seven’s outing, he threw 21 cutters in 22 pitches, which isn’t atypical. With Zobrist, the approach is obvious. He’s going to be pitched on the outer-half of the plate, where is weakness is, particularly up-and-away:

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The Indians had seen Zobrist beat McAllister in Game Two on an inner-third pitch he laced down the right field line. They’d seen him beat Romo on the Giants on an inner-third pitch he laced down the right field line. They weren’t going to give Zobrist the pitch he likes to hit again. They were going to make him beat them without his strength. And to Cleveland’s credit, they did. To Zobrist’s credit, so did he.

The first pitch of the at-bat sailed high, and Zobrist got ahead, 1-0:

But Shaw got back into it with a cutter up and over the plate that Zobrist took for strike one, the most hittable pitch he’d see in the at-bat:

They got tougher from there. Shaw got ahead with his next offering, this time a cutter at 94, beautifully backdoored to catch the lower-third quadrant of the zone, and taken by Zobrist for strike two:

Now down to his final strike, Zobrist chokes up:

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Shaw and Yan Gomes actually try and come in on the hands with this cutter, but Shaw misses away, and it actually winds up being a perfect pitch right in Zobrist’s coldest zone. He spoils it down the left field line, unknowingly foreshadowing the theatrics that would come on the next pitch:

Zobrist finally had his moment:

The pitch Shaw threw was a two-strike, 98 mph cutter located exactly where the heatmaps say to locate against Zobrist:

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According to PITCHf/x, it was the second-hardest cutter Shaw had thrown all season. Going through his pitch data, I located the 20 cutters closest in location to the one Zobrist doubled down the left field line. Of the 20 closest pitches to that one, zero of them went for hits. Two of them went for swinging strikes, three went in play for outs, five went for foul balls, and the other 10 went for called strikes. Shaw located a pitch that had worked for him all year, a pitch that was right in line with their gameplan against Zobrist, a pitch harder than almost any he’s ever thrown, and Zobrist did what fantastic hitters do, what World Series MVPs do.

At 41 career WAR, Zobrist is still a serious longshot to end his career in Cooperstown. He simply got going too late. But the fact that it’s even a consideration at all — and it is — is remarkable, considering how he was a Quad-A player at age 27 with the Rays just eight years ago. Since then, he’s racked up more WAR than all but six position players, all of whom will have Hall of Fame cases of their own, with a five-year peak as impressive as anything Hall of Famers like Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, and Reggie Jackson ever did.

Joe Maddon was there in Tampa Bay when Ben Zobrist turned himself from a nobody into a superstar who never was, into baseball’s most underrated player for half a decade. And last night, Joe Maddon was there when Ben Zobrist finally had his signature moment, the one that ensures his career will be remembered the way it should be.

We hoped you liked reading Ben Zobrist Will Not Be Underrated by the History Books by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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senpaisanto
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senpaisanto

another fine read, man – thanx and good luck!