Posted but not written by: Louis Sheehan
Zobrist in Oakland
By Dave Fleming
January 14, 2015
Since 2009, the best player in baseball has been Miguel Cabrera. According to FanGraphs’ version of WAR, Miggy has compiled 37.9 Wins Above Replacement. He’s done a lot of splashy things over the last six years: netting three batting titles, two MVP awards, and a Triple Crown. His career is on an impressive trajectory: the most comparable player to Miggy, according to Similarity Score, is Hank Aaron. Then Frank Robinson. Then Ott, Griffey, and Pujols.
Since 2009, the third best player in baseball has been Robinson Cano, who has compiled an fWAR of 34.6. Cano’s hitting statistics would seem impressive for a first baseman: that he is a talented second baseman who has missed just fourteen games in six seasons is why Cano is on a similarly impressive beeline to Cooperstown.
WAR is an advanced metric, but Cano and Cabrera do just as well when viewed by traditional numbers: they hit homers, produce runs, and have averages comfortably above .300. Both American League players, Cano and Cabrera have done extremely well in the annual MVP race:
Miggy finished 9th this year, while Robby finished 17th in 2009. Other than that, they’ve both ended up in the top-five in the writer’s vote.
They are both very well compensated for their steady production on the field. Robinson Cano made headlines by landing a 10/$240 deal with the Mariners last season, while Cabrera signed an 8/$248 extension that doesn’t even start until 2016. They are two of the best players in baseball, and they are two of the highest-paid players in the game.
And they’re two of the most famous players in baseball. A casual fan of baseball knows who Miguel Cabrera is, just as a casual fan has probably punched a tab for Robinson Cano when the attendants pass out those All-Star ballots during games.
So we’ve found parallels between the best and third-best player, according to WAR. Who’s the #2 guy?
You knew it, right? Partially, it’s the way I set up the article….emphasizing the all-round flashiness of Miggy and Cano. The middle guy had to be an odd-ball. And Zobrist is sabr-famous for being one of those players whom the advanced metrics love. Him and Alex Gordon, I guess.
Just to illustrate how much of an odd-ball Zobrist is, we can look at his traditional numbers, compared to Robby and Miggy:
Zobrist has 116 fewer homers than Cabrera, and sixty-one points in batting average. He’s a bit closer to Robinson Cano, but Cano still beats him comfortably in those splashy hitting categories. Everyone knows that Robinson Cano is a great player…not too many people think of Zobrist in the same light:
This article isn’t really about Robby or Miggy, but it’s worth mentioning where FanGraph’s version of WAR closes the gap between Miggy, Zobrist, and Cano. Throwing some lesser-known stats at you:
wRC+ is Weighted Runs Created Plus…it is a slight variant on OPS+, in that it measures offensive production with the context of league and park factors. Zobrist, who has spent his career in the pitching-friendly (and fan-repellant) Tropicana Field, draws closer to Robinson Cano, who enjoyed the pull-friendly confines of the new Yankee Stadium until he signed with the Mariners last year.
wRC+ doesn’t suggest that Zobrist is a better hitter than Cano or Cabrera….it merely suggests that he’s closer – at least to Cano – than the numbers initially seem.
But it’s the final three categories that show us when Zobrist gains on Cano and Cabrera. Off, BsR, and Def are offensive, base running, and defensive measures of runs contributed above average.
Zobrist is well behind Cabrera in Offensive Runs Above Average, and he’s a good distance behind Cano. But Zobrist gains some ground on the bases (BsR), and he gains considerable ground on defense: as a hitter he isn’t in the same zip-code as Cabrera, but once his defensive and base running contributions are considered, he is directly comparable to the Tigers first-baseman. He isn’t the same hitter as Cano, but he’s a better defensive player and a better baserunner…once park effects are neutralized, Zobrist comes out a tick ahead of the Seattle superstar.
This shouldn’t be read as any kind of knock on Miguel Cabrera or Robinson Cano: both players have strong cases as the best players in the game. My hope is to point out that Ben Zobrist has been that good, too.
* * *
Of course, Ben Zobrist isn’t likely to remain that good: the position-flexible star will turn thirty-four in May, so it’s unlikely that he’ll continue to keep pace with his younger rivals.
That said, the Oakland A’s have acquired one of the best players in baseball (and Yunel Escobar) for the budget price of John Jaso and two prospects (or one prospect and one clone of ex-Baltimore slugger Boog Powell.) They’ll pay $7.5 million for Zobrist, and have a full year to woo him to the charms of the Bay Area, and extend him. At the very least, the A’s can give Zobrist a qualifying offer and net a first-round pick when someone else signs him.
This has been a quietly astonishing offseason for Oakland: they’ve traded away a player than ranked fourth among AL batters in fWAR, and then acquired a player who ranked seventh by the same metric. To give that some perspective, the NL equivalent would have the Marlins trading away Giancarlo Stanton, and then acquiring Anthony Rizzo. Even if these were the only moves Oakland made, it’s be a fascinating offseason. But Oakland’s essentially redrafted their team. They traded away their best power hitter for a guy who had a decent half-season at Double-A. They traded their best (or second-best) starting pitcher to Chicago. They traded away both halves of their enormously valuable catching platoon. And…first actually…they signed Billy Butler.
My sense is that the A’s are trying to catch their likely division rivals by going big on defense. Yunel Escobar, though an unreliable hitter, is a solid defensive shortstop. Ben Zobrist is strong anywhere on the diamond. They traded away the brilliant Josh Donaldson, but Brett Lawrie is one of the few third basemen in baseball who can match Donaldson as a defender. Their outfield can claim two big pluses in Crisp and Josh Reddick, and Sam Fuld can catch ‘em. A platoon of Vogt and Josh Phegley should be an improvement over Derek Norris behind the plate.
(Just a note on the strike-through text: as I was editing this article, I found out that the A’s have traded Yunel Escobar for National set-up man Tyler Clippard).
There’s a debate about what kind of defensive team the A’s were last year. Our site credits Oakland with +32 runs saved, a tally that ranks them third in the AL, behind Baltimore and Kansas City. Comparing Oakland rates against their likely division rivals in 2015:
Def. Runs Saved
John’s Defensive Runs Saved suggests that Oakland was much more efficient at saving runs than the Mariners or Angels. But FanGraphs’ version of team defense value – Defensive Runs Above Average – thinks the gap is a lot closer:
Def. Runs Above Avg.
By this team metric, the Oakland defense is pretty middle-of-the-pack. Tellingly, the defenses of the Angels and Mariners are also underwhelming. (The best defensive team in baseball last year, by this metric, were the Cincinnati Reds.)
The acquisitions of Zobrist and Escobar suggest that Oakland views improving their defense is one way for the cash-poor organization to keep pace with the Mariners and Angels. This makes intuitive sense: one by-product of a good defense in a pitcher’s park is that it will make all Oakland pitchers look better: it’s possible that Billy Beane is hoping a strong defense will have the ancillary benefit of shining up the stats of some of the team’s young arms, which he can deal down the road for prospects and/or undervalued players.
Whatever the final plan (and it seems that things are very much still in motion), the Oakland A’s have been involved in two blockbuster moves that don’t quite feel like blockbusters. They’ve remade their team into one that figures to be one of the strongest defensive teams in baseball next year. It’ll be interesting to see how it works.
* * *
While we’re on the subject of Ben Zobrist, should we be talking about him as a deserving candidate for the Hall-of-Fame?
I choose the words of that last sentence carefully: it is unlikely that Zobrist is a candidate for the Hall. Although advanced metrics have gained considerable traction in how players are evaluated, I don’t know if we’ve reached a point where voters are going to elect a player who has a lifetime average of .264, 114 homers, and 511 RBI’s. Zobrist has led the league in exactly one category: sacrifice flies. He probably isn’t getting the bronze plaque.
That said, Zobrist’s peak, at least according to fWAR, compares very favorably with the peaks of Hall-of-Fame second baseman. Actually, let me change that sentence: Zobrist’s peak is a Hall-of-Fame level peak.
Here are the fifteen best second baseman by fWAR, from Age-28 to Age-33:
WAR, Age 28-33
Zobrist ranks in the middle of the pack: the only players not in the Hall-of-Fame are Chase Utley (a fine candidate) and Eddie Stanky (an underrated player).
Zobrist does not have the career length of the players ranked with him: he wasn’t a regular in the majors until he was twenty-eight years old. But his peak years are excellent: if he is able to remain productive for three or four more seasons, he’ll be an interesting test case.
In the meantime, the Oakland A’s have acquired the most Oakland A’s-ish player in baseball. It’s something for all of us to cheer about.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions at this site and at email@example.com.
COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)
The most surprising statistic in the entire article is the fact that Ben Zobrist is 34 years old.
1:42 PM Jan 17th
(btw, MWeddell meant underrated, of course)
3:12 PM Jan 16th
Since rgregory posted the top-9 in Win Shares over the last six seasons, I thought I’d post the top-9 in fWAR:
37.9 – M Cabrera
35.4 – Zobrist
34.6 – Cano
34.0 – Longoria
33.9 – McCutchen
31.8 – Beltre
30.5 – Votto
29.6 – Bautista
29.0 – Pedroia
Both metrics have Miggy, Cano, Zobrist, McCutchen, and Votto.
Win Shares rounds out with Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, Pujols, and Matt Holliday….two 1B and two corner OF’s.
fWAR – which makes a positional adjustment for a player’s hitting – prefers Longoria, Beltre, Bautista, and Pedroia….guys on the tougher side of the defensive spectrum.
I am the MOST surprised that Zobrist cracks both lists.
9:17 PM Jan 15th
Just as another point of reference, here are the players with 140+ Win Shares over the past 6 years:
190 M Cabrera
170 A Gonzalez
4:26 PM Jan 15th
A west coast timezone guy with flex positions for last minute scratches? I’m drafting him.
8:07 AM Jan 15th
Zobrist is definitely over-rated, so I don’t disagree with the main premise of the article.
However, when we evaluate his Hall of Fame case, by excluding WAR before age 28, we are cherry-picking the statistics to favor Zobrist. If we consider all career WAR through a player’s age 33 season, Zobrist ranks 37th among major league second basemen. I’m sure that there are a lot fewer than 37 second basemen, excluding Negro League players, that are in the Hall of Fame, so his case falls apart.
Players surrounding Zobrist on the 2B leaderboard of WAR (Fangraphs version) through age 33 are Dick McAuliffe, Buddy Myer, George Grantham and Ian Kinsler.
7:46 AM Jan 15th
Ben Zobrist, I love it,
David Ortiz, Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista are 4,5, 6, right.
1:49 AM Jan 15th
Thanks for this. I’ve posted in Reader Posts that I wish Zobrist somehow would do what he needs to do to be regarded at all as a Hall of Fame candidate. If I had a ballot, he’d have my vote.
I like to talk about things that don’t show up in metrics, and can’t. Zobrist’s “position-flexibility” is a thing that doesn’t, but which potentially could; it would be complicated, but I think it eventually could be accounted for. Of course multi-positionality often means mediocrity, but sometimes, like with Tony Phillips as well as Zobrist, it means versatility in the best sense — and it is very valuable to a team. Even considering how well Zobrist comes out in what you looked at, I think his actual value has been even greater, because of this “versatility value” that isn’t in there.
12:08 AM Jan 15th
Posted but not written by: Louis Sheehan
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