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Zobrist again proving versatile and valuable as key cog in Rays' run

The man whose last name is last in baseball's alphabetical listing has returned to the position he played first, a circuitous route during which he established himself as one of the game's best.

The Rays' Ben Zobrist, a shortstop at heart but a utility player in practice, defies a succinct positional listing. He has started a game at every position other than pitcher and catcher in his career and his media guide entry helpfully lists him as "Infielder | Outfielder."

Zobrist is as versatile at the plate as he is in the field -- with across-the-board contributions in runs, walks, steals and extra-base hits -- and his combination of skills has made him, very quietly, one of the most valuable players in baseball.

His versatility and his value have been on full display lately, after manager Joe Maddon moved him back to shortstop, a position he hadn't played in over three years, two weeks ago to help improve an offense that ranked only ninth in the AL in scoring. So far the idea has worked. The Rays have won seven of the eight games Zobrist has started at short amid a 17-5 stretch over its last 22 games that has left them atop the Wild Card standings. Zobrist has hit .387 while manning shortstop and .333 overall dating to Aug. 9, his first game back at his old position.

That hot streak is both well-timed and ironic. "The interesting thing is that, if I would have hit right away when I came to the big leagues, I probably would have just stayed at shortstop and they wouldn't have moved me around," Zobrist said in a recent telephone interview. "But because I didn't hit very well, they considered me as a utility guy. Then when I started hitting, it was like, Woah, we like him playing these various positions, but now he's hitting, so now we'll have him play everyday."

In 2006 and '07, his first two big league seasons, Zobrist had a .200 average, .509 OPS and just three homers in 303 plate appearances, leading to a tag of light-hitting fielder who was moved around the diamond as a defensive replacement. Since 2009, however, he's had an exceptional walk rate (second-most in the AL) and an .822 OPS -- production he has sustained despite daily instructions to change positions.

Zobrist brings three gloves with him to the ballpark each day -- a game-use middle-infield glove, a backup middle-infield glove and an outfield glove -- but that's down from the five he used to carry (he also had one each for first base and third base, neither of which he's played since 2010).

He's made 21 in-game position changes this year after making 15 last year, 41 back in 2010 and 33 in '09. And it's not just that Zobrist plays several positions, but he plays them well, especially with Gold Glove-caliber defense at second base and above-average defense in rightfield.

"I would say my arm probably prefers to have a home, but my career likes to be flexible," he said. "For our team and for just value in general as a player, I think it's just valuable for our team that I am able to play a lot of different positions. It gives our team a lot of flexibility late in the game to make moves that maybe we wouldn't be able to make if a guy isn't comfortable playing different positions.

"The Rays have been pioneers in that, giving me an opportunity to do that on a regular basis."

Ah, value. Baseball front offices and observers have long been trying to evaluate a player's value to his ballclub and how much his contributions matter to each franchise's won-loss record. WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a statistic which has gained popularity in recent years, attempts to provide an answer by quantifying a player's hitting, fielding and baserunning performance into one number that equates to the number of wins he adds over a replacement-level backup. Concessions are made so that offensive production from a shortstop is valued higher than the same amount from a leftfielder.

Zobrist has only a smattering of mainstream accolades -- he received down-ballot MVP votes in 2009 and '11 and made his only AL All-Star team in 2009 -- but the WAR leaderboards suggest he deserves much more attention.

According to the metrics at Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs, the two leading websites that compute WAR, Zobrist has been among the most valuable players in the game since the start of 2009. Baseball-Reference has him ranked second among position players, and Fangraphs pegs him at No. 4.

Is WAR accurate and is Zobrist really a top-five player? Though it's not a definitive evaluation tool, it is an informative starting point for a discussion. Advanced defensive statistics have come a long way in a short time, but they remain imperfect and fielding does account for a large portion of his value. Also, WAR is weighted based on position, so a shortstop and a leftfielder with the same OPS will have different values, which also works in Zobrist's favor.

Still, it's obvious that there's a persisting under-appreciation of Zobrist's skillset in the mainstream.

Even a cursory glance at the table shows that he lacks the offensive numbers of his peers on that list. Sure, Zobrist is a patient hitter, an attribute that starts in batting practice when he'll treat the last round or two like a game, taking pitches he can't adequately drive. His 332 walks since the start of '09 rank sixth in the majors, and his .368 OBP is 29th. And while he lacks the power of his leaderboard cohorts, his fielding numbers -- Zobrist derives the third-most fWAR value from his fielding -- show his value. Among the top 30 on the WAR leaderboard, only one other player, Toronto's Jose Bautista, logged meaningful time at more than two positions that wasn't exclusively an outfielder.

Enough friends and family have told Zobrist about his high WAR rankings -- and Sports Illustrated ran a story in its 2010 baseball preview issue declaring him the game's best bang for the buck in terms of WAR per salary -- that he understands the gist of the stat, that it's a "combo of everything of how valuable you are to helping your team win." But he said it's not something he seeks out or understands how it's produced.

"Honestly, it's nice to know that there's a statistic out there that may not be on the main boards of every stadium, but that shows that there's some value there that may be under the surface that you don't see right away," he said. "I just think that if I do my best to play every part of the game -- defense, offense, baserunning, whatever it is -- I'm giving my team the best opportunity with me in the lineup to win."

Zobrist, a sixth-round pick by Houston in 2004, was a very good hitter coming up in the Astros' minor league system, hitting .325 with a .436 on-base percentage in two and a half seasons before he was traded in July 2006 along with pitcher Mitch Talbot to Tampa Bay for Aubrey Huff.

In those first two years with Tampa Bay Zobrist's minor league success did not translate in the majors, as he batted just .200 with a .234 OBP in 83 games in '06 and '07, back when he played exclusively shortstop.

After that season he and one of his A ball teammates from 2004 and '05, Drew Sutton, worked out together that winter and made some radical changes in their swings with the assistance of Jaime Cevallos, the self-proclaimed Swing Mechanic, who helped Zobrist load his swing better, particularly in his use of his front knee and swing path.

In 2008 Zobrist batted .253 but slugged .505, good enough for 12 homers and an .844 OPS. In 2009, Zobrist made his debut on the WAR leaderboard with an 8.3 bWAR and 8.7 fWAR, both second in the majors, after a superlative season in which he batted .297 with a .405 OBP, .543 slugging and 27 home runs, all while playing seven positions.

When he struggled earlier this season -- on June 6 he was hitting .199 with a .706 OPS -- he was fortunate to see a familiar face in the clubhouse. For a month he and Sutton were again teammates, and the proximity led to a thoughtful exchange about hitting and a rejuvenated Zobrist.

"During the course of that month we spent some time together, talking about our swings, and it was back during that time that we talked about how we had evolved as hitters since 2007," Zobrist said. "We really had a good conversation about the hands and the importance of getting back to that, from where we had been before. We had both changed some things pretty radically back in 2007.

"Just talking to him sparked some thoughts and some ideas about what I had been doing before and how that converged with what we had changed in 2007."

Beginning with a mid-June interleague series in Miami, Zobrist has a sterling .315/.410/.532 batting line. For the season his OPS+, which is adjusted for league and ballpark, is 134, best among Tampa Bay with at least 150 plate appearances and 18th in the AL.

There's little question, therefore, that Zobrist has been the Rays' most valuable position player this season, proving once again that sometimes the last shall indeed be first.

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