Chicago Cubs’ Ben Zobrist is having what’s shaping up to be the best year of his career, but fantasy baseball owners should have seen it coming.
Every so often, the fantasy community as a whole misses something that should have been obvious, and that’s helped turn one of the best players to date in 2016 into potentially the biggest steal of draft season. He was an established player joining a new team that just happened to be a perfect fit for his skills. The marriage is helping the player in question to the best season of his 11-year career.
Ben Zobrist ended the spring with an average draft position of 147.8, according to FantasyPros’ aggregation of data from five major fantasy baseball websites. That made him the 13th second baseman off the board in a typical draft, immediately behind D.J. LeMahieu (146) and Kolten Wong (137.6). Zobrist didn’t hear his name called until early in the 13th round, on average, of a 12-team draft. Entering the ninth week of the season, he’s the No. 7 overall player in standard 5x5 leagues, and the No. 4 hitter, behind Bryce Harper, Jose Altuve and Mike Trout. In case you’re keeping score at home, the four best hitters over the first two months of the season were three first-round picks, and a guy who finally found a home two hours into your draft.
Zobrist’s stat line is packed with so much value, regardless of what scoring format your league uses. He leads the majors with a .452 OBP and is tied for a second with a .351 batting average. His .425 wOBA is tied for third in the majors, trailing only David Ortiz and Daniel Murphy. Shift over to OPS and you’ll find Zobrist sitting in sixth on the leaderboard. He has a 2.9 fWAR thus far, tied for fourth in the league with Xander Bogaerts behind Manny Machado, Trout and Dexter Fowler. You’ll notice that those four all play premium defensive positions, while Zobrist is a second baseman and sometimes corner outfielder. Whereas they others are bolstering their WAR totals with their gloves, Zobrist is doing it almost entirely with his bat.
A couple more traditional stats lay bare where the entire fantasy community whiffed on Zobrist. He is one of just four players in the majors with at least 35 runs and 35 RBI. The other three are Mookie Betts (46 runs, 35 RBI), Gregory Polanco (38 runs, 35 RBI) and Zobrist’s teammate, Kris Bryant (37 runs, 37 RBI). The Cubs, of course, entered the season as World Series favorites and they’ve done nothing to disappoint, going 35–14 through the end of May. While they had the defending Cy Young Award winner in Jake Arrieta at the head of a strong rotation, the Cubs received so much attention this off-season largely because of an offense that was expected to be one of the best, if not the very best, in all of Major League Baseball. That should have been our first sign that Zobrist was undervalued.
We talk about team-based environment in fantasy football all the time. We’ll aggressively target quarterbacks on teams with bad defenses or receivers who play with someone like Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger. Even if the player himself doesn’t seem special, the environment he’s in makes him attractive. We don’t give that same thought enough attention in fantasy baseball, to our detriment. Zobrist’s 2016 season is the perfect example of a player getting more out of himself thanks to a perfect environment, and it shouldn’t have been this hard to see coming.
Zobrist headed into the 2016 season with a career .355 OBP, which was a huge reason the Cubs pursued him so aggressively. While they won 97 games and went to the NLCS a year ago, they were among the league-leaders in strikeouts and made no secret of their desire to be more patient as a team. Zobrist, in turn, was exactly the sort of player they were looking add, not only because he fit that mold, but because he could help imbue the lineup with his patient approach. Consider Zobrist’s mission accomplished.
Through the first two months of the season, the Cubs lead the majors in walk rate and are slightly better than league average in strikeout rate. Zobrist himself has a 16.3% walk rate and 11% strikeout rate, and is leading the majors in walk-to-strikeout ratio. With all those baserunners, everyone in the Cubs regular lineup gets consistent run-scoring and RBI opportunities. As an example, Addison Russell, who hits in the bottom-third of the order and has a .250/.344/.384 slash line, has the same number of RBI as Ryan Braun and Eric Hosmer, and more than Josh Donaldson and George Springer. Zobrist, on the other hand, hits in the middle of the order and has been one of the best hitters in the league. It’s no surprise he’s racking up counting stats.
There are a lot of different ways to quantify how often Zobrist is in a position to drive in or score runs, but this is my favorite. He has had a runner in scoring position on nearly one-third of the pitches, 32.4%, that he has seen this season. For Harper, that number is down at 20.2%. For Trout, it’s 22.3%. The highest rate, which shouldn’t be a surprise at this point of the column, belongs to Anthony Rizzo at 40.1%. With all due respect to the Red Sox and Pirates, there’s no better environment for hitting than the Cubs lineup. Zobrist is taking advantage and having the best year of his career at 35 years old.
Hitters to watch this week
Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox
Last week at this time, it was Jackie Bradley Jr. with the league’s longest hitting streak. Now it’s his teammate, Bogaerts. The 23-year-old shortstop has at least one hit in 23 straight games, and is up to a .354/.405/.524 slash line this season. The Red Sox play six more games this week against the Orioles and Blue Jays. By time it’s over, Bogaerts can match Bradley for the longest hitting streak thus far in 2016.
Miguel Sano, 3B/OF, Twins
Sano homered in four straight games to end last week, giving him 11 on the season. The 23-year-old slugger’s second season hasn’t gone as smoothly as his first, but he’s finally starting to get things going, at least in the power department. Sano has six homers in the last two weeks, and eight since May 11. The fact that his OBP is more than 100 points higher than his batting average should also encourage his owners that, at the very least, he has a sound approach at the plate, even when he isn’t finding many holes. Strikeouts are always going to be part of his game, but so long as he’s walking and hitting homers, you’re going to be able to live with the whiffs.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates
Welcome to stardom, Gregory Polanco. The 24-year-old rightfielder got things going right from the start of the season and hasn’t looked back. It launched from the foundation of improved plate discipline, which has led him to a 12% walk rate through the first two months of the season. His power has started to show up recently, and he now has eight homers, 18 doubles, a .565 slugging percentage and .250 isolated slugging percentage on the season. He’s the No. 12 overall player and No. 9 hitter in standard 5x5 leagues, and is one of the few true five category players in the majors.
Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
It’s officially time for Abreu owners to be nervous. He’s hitting just .248/.311/.391 on the season, and hasn’t even had a week or two where his owners could feel encouraged. His line-drive and hard-hit rates are down, while his strikeout, walk, fly-ball and ground-ball rates remain flat. What’s worse, his HR/FB ratio is all the way down to 11.3% It was 26.9% in his rookie year and 19.7% last season. If fewer than 15% of his fly balls are leaving the yard, he’s barely a top-15 first baseman.
Matt Kemp, OF, Padres
Kemp is on pace for just shy of 39 homers despite the fact that he’s hitting .228/.238/.456 on the season. A 30-homer, sub-.300-OBP season is more common that you might think, occurring 22 times in MLB history. The last time it happened was 2013, when both Pedro Alvarez (36 homers, .296 OBP) and Mark Trumbo (34 homers, .294 OBP) achieved the semi-feat. It has never been done with an OBP as low as Kemp’s .238. Tony Armas holds the record lowest OBP in a 30-homer season, when he put up a .254 OBP while hitting 36 bombs in 1983. Kemp has a real chance to chase Armas’s ignominious mark.
Josh Bell, 1B, Pirates
There’s no question that the John Jaso first-base-and-leadoff-man experiment is working out excellently for the Pirates. The 32-year-old converted catcher is hitting .306/.371/.446 in his first year in Pittsburgh, setting the table for Andrew McCutchen, Polanco and Starling Marte. The Pirates, however, may have no choice but to find a spot for Bell’s bat soon. The 23-year-old is in what would be his first full season with Triple-A Indianapolis, and is slashing .304/.401/.476 with five homers in 197 plate appearances. He spent 36 games at Indianapolis last year, and is sitting on a career line of .322/.418/.488 at the highest level in the minors. Bell is a switch-hitter who projects to slot in the middle of the order as a major leaguer, and that could eventually give the Pirates one of the most fearsome quartets in baseball within the next few seasons.
The big question for fantasy owners this year, though, is how and when do the Pirates get Bell into their lineup? Jaso is doing way too good a job at the top of the order to simply promote Bell to play every day. The Pirates also aren’t typically the sort of team that can afford to trade away a cost-controlled 23-year-old with the potential to be an above-average middle-of-the-order hitter. At the same time, the Pirates have been stuck in the NL wild-card game three years in a row, and are already 6.5 games behind the Cubs in the NL Central. It could be possible that Bell’s surest route to the majors this season is in a blockbuster trade. If and when he gets to the majors, he’ll be immediately relevant in fantasy leagues, but if he’s part of the Pirates organization all year, that might not happen early enough for him to make a difference in 2016.
GIF of the week
Aledmys Diaz has made headlines all season thanks to his bat, but he turned in one of the best plays we’ve seen from a shortstop this year running down this blooper off the bat of Anthony Rizzo.