Figuring Out What To Pay Ben Zobrist

Ben Zobrist has been something of a polarizing figure in the game for seven years now. Ever since his 2009 breakout — where a 28 year old with -0.4 career WAR put up an +8.6 WAR season — his place among the game’s best players has been a point of discussion, with some pretty wide ranging opinions regarding his value. To the sabermetric community, he was a legitimate superstar, putting up +35 WAR over a six year stretch, coming in behind only Miguel Cabrera among position players in MLB during that time. To those who evaluate players more by their physical tools and traditional performance markers, Zobrist was a good player but an archetype of the guy overrated by FanGraphs-style analysis, with too much emphasis placed on his defense and baserunning and not enough on his moderate power.

During those six years where he graded out as an elite performer by WAR, he only made the All-Star team twice, and his only top 10 MVP finish was in 2009, the year he led the majors in WAR; he finished 8th on AL ballot that year, and his next-best MVP finish put him 16th. Zobrist is about as close to a litmus test as you’re going to find for how much emphasis someone puts on metrics versus tools.

This winter, we’re finally going to get to see how the market evaluates Zobrist’s abilities, but because he signed an extension with Tampa Bay that sold a few free agent years in exchange for some guaranteed income, we still won’t really get to find out what the market thought of peak-Zobrist. Instead, Jason Heyward is taking the role of being the defense-and-baserunning superstar this off-season, and Zobrist’s market will give us more of an idea of how teams see the late-career aging curve in the post-PED era.

The FanGraphs crowd projected Zobrist for 3 years, $42 million. Over at ESPN, Jim Bowden projected 3 years, $48 million. At MLBTR, Tim Dierkes forecasted 3 years, $51 million. At CBS, Jon Heyman guessed 4 years, $60 million.

And then there’s me. I’m the outlier in the group, putting down an estimate of 4 years, $76 million, almost doubling the total guarantee that the crowd expects. Of the publicly available free agent prognosticators, I was the high man on both the years and the annual average value, which is quite likely informed by the fact that I put more stock in the statistical analysis than most others do. The fact that I’m so far off the consensus likely says more about me than Zobrist, and in talking with people in the game, no one thinks I’m going to end up being right on this one.

But it’s a question worth pondering; if everyone else is right, and the market is going to value him at around $15 million per year for three or maybe four years, is the league still wildly underestimating Ben Zobrist after all these years?

Even after beginning the season hampered by a knee injury, Zobrist was still a pretty excellent player in 2015, especially once he returned from the DL.

Zobrist Before and After DL Stint
Date PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Pre-DL 56 9% 5% 0.160 0.234 0.240 0.304 0.400 0.298 89
Post-DL 479 12% 11% 0.175 0.295 0.281 0.365 0.456 0.355 127

Before spending a month getting his knee healthy, Zobrist was mostly just trying to make contact, not hitting the ball with any real authority. After spending a month rehabbing, he came back and hit as well as he did during his 2009-2014 run, combining excellent contact skills with above average power. The 127 wRC+ he put up from the Memorial Day weekend through the end of the regular season suggests that a healthy Zobrist has experienced little decline to this point, with his core skills remaining in tact. And then he went into the postseason and put up a 133 wRC+ against superior pitching. As an offensive player, there appears to be few reasons to think that Zobrist’s age is starting to catch up to him.

But his defensive numbers — long a staple of his overall value — took a nosedive, as he put up a -11 UZR while splitting time between second base and the outfield, and his baserunning value went away as well. While correlation is not causation, it isn’t that hard to imagine that Zobrist was taking things a little easy for the sake of remaining in the line-up, and perhaps may have traded some defensive value for the right to put a little less wear and tear on his legs. Or, perhaps, as he reaches his mid-30s, Zobrist’s physical abilities have indeed regressed, and it showed up on the field before it showed up at the plate. It’s hard to say at this point, and there’s unquestionably some risk involved for any team paying Zobrist as if he’s capable of playing second base at a high level for the next three of four years.

But realistically, how good of a defender do we have to think that Zobrist is going to be to be an impact player at the position, given his sustained level of offense? Factoring in aging, Steamer still projects Zobrist for a 113 wRC+ in 2015 — a mark that would be his lowest since 2010, and doesn’t take into account the fact that his early-2015 numbers came while playing through an injury — and I think it’s perfectly reasonable to think that something in the 115-120 range could be expected for 2016.

A 115 wRC+ with average second base defense and not much baserunning value still grades out as a +3 WAR player, and one of the best second baseman in baseball. With below average to poor defense, he’d grade out at something closer to +2 WAR, and at that point, he’d essentially be Daniel Murphy; a high-contact hitter with some power and a glove that might fit better at another position. Except everyone expects Daniel Murphy to get more money than Zobrist.

Heyman projected Murphy for 4/$64M, MLBTR had him at 4/$56M, and Bowden and the FG crowd both had him at 4/$48M. Except Murphy is already at Zobrist’s worst-case evaluation, the one where the 2015 defensive numbers are legitimate and he really shouldn’t play much second base going forward. Yes, he’s younger, and the offensive skillsets are similar, but Zobrist has proven he can sustain this level of performance over a much longer time period, and has a long history of being a positive defender at the position. Should a team really prefer an inferior talent with a shorter track record because of the difference between a 35 year old and a 31 year old?

The Mets certainly don’t seem to think so, as they appear to be making little-to-no effort to re-sign Murphy, even after he helped carry them to the World Series, but are aggressively pursuing Zobrist, according to multiple reports. As Matt Swartz has shown, players that switch teams often underperform their projections, and it’s probably a worthwhile piece of data that the Mets prefer Zobrist to Murphy, given that they know more about Murphy than anyone else. So should we really expect the two to sign for similar prices this winter?

You don’t even have to assume that Zobrist is going to get his defensive value back to see him as being worth $60 million or more. Here’s what a contract for +3 WAR player — remember, that’s his projected level assuming he’s an average defender at second base for 2016 — might look like given the assumptions we’re making about this free agent market.

Ben Zobrist’s Contract Estimate — 4 yr / $63.1 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Value
2016 35 3.0 $8.0 M $24.0 M
2017 36 2.3 $8.4 M $18.9 M
2018 37 1.5 $8.8 M $13.2 M
2019 38 0.8 $9.3 M $6.9 M
Totals 7.5 $63.1 M
Assumptions
Value: $8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation
Aging Curve: 0 WAR/yr (18-27), -0.25 WAR/yr (27-35), -0.75 WAR/yr (> 35)

That puts Zobrist at around 4/$63M, and is probably a reasonable compromise point between putting too much faith in a rebound in his defensive performance and understanding that he is indeed getting older, and knee problems often hang around for a while. But keep in mind that free agents usually get signed by teams with the most optimistic viewpoint of a player, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see Zobrist as a +5 defender at 2B next year, given that he was +10 in 2014 and +15 in 2013. If a team sees Zobrist as an above average defender at second base, then the projection over the next four years would look something like this.

Ben Zobrist’s Contract Estimate — 4 yr / $80.3 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Value
2016 35 3.5 $8.0 M $28.0 M
2017 36 2.8 $8.4 M $23.1 M
2018 37 2.0 $8.8 M $17.6 M
2019 38 1.3 $9.3 M $11.6 M
Totals 9.5 $80.3 M
Assumptions
Value: $8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation
Aging Curve: 0 WAR/yr (18-27), -0.25 WAR/yr (27-35), -0.75 WAR/yr (> 35)

At that expectation, my 4/$76M guess no longer looks that crazy. You’re basically paying for an above average player at ages 35 and 36, an average one at 37, and a utility player at 38. For a team looking for a short-term boost that can afford some dead money in a couple of years, this seems like it may be one of the best ways to get quality performance without risking a significant amount of a team’s payroll. After all, the younger +3ish WAR players are going to sign for $150 million, so it’s not like it’s that easy to buy low-cost players of this caliber anymore.

For the record, if you start him out at +2.5 WAR — expecting him to be a defensive liability next year — then the estimate would be 4/$46M, still pretty close to the total guarantee that most people are predicting. A +2.5 WAR projection for a guy who just put up +2.1 WAR in 126 games, after seasons of +5.5 and +5.0 the two seasons prior, seems to be about as pessimistic as one could possibly get though, especially given how strongly Zobrist finished the 2015 season.

Maybe there won’t be enough teams to see him as a +3.5 WAR guy to get up towards that 4/$76M guess that I put out there. But it’s really difficult to see as Zobrist as worth less than $50 million, and really, something closer to $60 million should probably be his floor. He isn’t going to be what he was before, but even as he gets older, there are still plenty of reasons to think that Zobrist will remain a productive player for the next couple of years.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Noah Baronmember
8 years ago

The Mets also happen to be a very analytical-minded team, so there’s that. Their GM, Sandy Alderson, is essentially the godfather of modern analytics. It surprises me that people in the mainstream baseball media don’t make a bigger deal about this (I guess it contradicts the notion that Moneyball teams can’t win in the playoffs).

So it’s not surprising that the Mets are interested in Zobrist more than Murphy. The average team, however, is far less analytically minded than the Mets, so it makes sense that their overall markets are similar.

Michael Cuddyer
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

Makes sense to me.

Brian Mangan
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

It’s 2015. All of the teams are analytically minded now. People may have different values for Murphy and Zobrist based on their research and preferences, but to say that the average team is less analytically minded than the Mets is not accurate.

Noah Baronmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Brian Mangan

“All of the teams are analytically minded now.”

Are you sure about that? Might want to read up on the front offices of the Marlins, Braves, Rockies, Diamondbacks, White Sox, Reds, Giants, Twins, etc.

It’s not the 1990s, but it’s silly to have all these broad generalizations. All teams might use analytics, but to varying, varying degrees. The Rays, Mets, and Dodgers use analytics way more frequently (and effectively) than teams like the Marlins.

Saying that all teams are analytically minded is a false equivalency between how different front offices operate.

Names out of hats
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

Cuz half of those teams have well known analytics.

Noah Baronmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

Nice response bro. If you think all teams use analytics equally you’re living in a fantasy world.

FunkyTown
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

Yeah brah cuz you say so dude brah

SAlderson
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

An analytically inclined front office chuckles quietly at the thought of using WAR to make decisions.

Brian Mangan
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

> it’s silly to have all these broad generalizations

I was responding to your broad generalization.

> Saying that all teams are analytically minded is a false equivalency between how different front offices operate.

That’s not what a false equivalency is.

> The Rays, Mets, and Dodgers use analytics way more frequently (and effectively) than teams like the Marlins.

Unless you have some inside info on this (and I’m not talking about that ESPN Analytics article) then this is just speculation.

SocraticGadfly
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

First, second basemen age out more rapidly than any other position than catcher, which I noted in this post last summer, from my blog, about Cano:

http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2015/06/how-close-to-toast-is-robinson-cano.html

Second, Zobrist’s defensive stats must be noted as “relative” and viewed through the lens of Joe Maddon being an early, and aggressive, adopter of defensive shifts.

Rauce
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

Couldn’t the reason that the Mets are pursuing Zobrist and not Murphy be because of the perceived markets for each player?
I’m sure the Royals would prefer Gordon to Parra, but they might not like Gordon at 5/$100M as much as they like Parra at 2/$18M.
Same thing with the Mets: They like Zobrist at 3/$48M, more than they like Murphy at 4/$60M.
I thought stories were already circulating that the Mets were finding Zobrist’s price tag to be too high. That would seem to support what I’m saying – they like Zobrist… until he costs Murphy money.