All Hail Tampa's "Zorilla"

Daniel RathmanCorrespondent IJune 18, 2009

NEW YORK - JUNE 07:  Ben Zobrist #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays at bat  against the New York Yankees during their game on June 7, 2009 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

As is the case with any year, there have been numerous surprises in Major League Baseball so far this season.

Russell Branyan, a career .237 hitter, is batting .307. Zack Greinke, who had 34 victories in his first five seasons, already has eight this year.

And, before he landed on the disabled list with a groin strain, it seemed that 37 year-old Raul Ibañez had discovered the fountain of youth, with a .312 average, 22 homers, and a 1.027 OPS highlighting a phenomenal first 250 at-bats.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of all comes from a Tampa Bay Rays team that has been surprisingly mediocre. The Rays are just 35-33 this season, and trail the AL East leading Red Sox by six games heading into Thursday's action.

Joe Maddon's team has been ravaged by injuries during the first third of the season, as Scott Kazmir, B.J. Upton, Jason Bartlett, and Pat Burrell have all missed a significant number of games. Second-baseman Akinori Iwamura suffered a serious knee injury on May 22nd, and will not play again this year.

With five of its key players not contributing at full capacity, one might wonder how the youthful Tampa Bay squad has managed to even stay afloat in the ultra-competitive AL East division.

The answer is a 28 year-old utility-man nicknamed "Zorilla" by his eclectic skipper.

Ben Zobrist was a sixth-round draft pick of the Astros back in 2004, and was traded to the Rays in the deal that sent Aubrey Huff to Houston in July of 2006. He made his Major League debut less than a month later, but showed nothing resembling his current offensive prowess.

In 2008, Zobrist flashed excellent power, mashing a dozen homers in just 198 at-bats. Perhaps that outburst—in what was his legendary age-27 season—should have served as a notice of Zorilla's arrival. But it certainly didn't portend quite as magnificent a performance as he has had so far.

Through his first 174 at-bats of the season, Ben Zobrist has authored a phenomenal slash line of .310/.420/.678. He has collected 14 doubles, legged-out four triples, and slugged 14 homers.

You read that correctly: Despite having at least 60 fewer plate appearances than most of his counterparts, Zobrist ranks eighth in the junior circuit with 32 extra-base hits, just six behind the leader (his teammate Evan Longoria).

The switch-hitting Zorilla has crushed righties (.277/.394/.622) and clobbered lefties (.382/.477/.800). He has been a gourmet chef at home (.293/.426/.707) and a fierce warrior on the road (.326/.415/.652).

Zobrist has also done his job regardless of the situation. He has catalyzed rallies (.330/.427/.716 with the bases empty), kept them going (.291/.413/.640 with men on), driven runners in (.277/.393/.660 with RISP), and come through in the clutch (.292/.414/.583 with RISP and two outs). Zorilla is also 4-for-10 with two grand slams in eleven trips to the plate with the bases loaded.

And, he has been remarkably consistent. Zobrist was a torrential shower in April (.289/.360/.644) and a gorgeous flower in May (.313/.439/.625). He's showing no signs of falling into a June swoon either, sporting a .327/.441/.796 line this month.

To all of the incredulous fantasy owners who were fortunate enough to grab him but sold high expecting his magic to run out, Zorilla's AL-best 1.237 June OPS is a mindblowing slap to the face.

More on that in a moment. First, it's important to recognize that Ben Zobrist's immense value to the Rays does not end there.

Manager Joe Maddon has likened Zobrist to Tony Phillips, a utility-man he coached while with the Angels organization in the 1990s.

"As super-utility guys go, it might be kind of an odd comparison, but [he reminds me of] Tony Phillips," Maddon said. "Tony used to do all this stuff and hit for power."

What does Maddon mean by "all this stuff," you ask?

Well, whenever one of the Rays has been shelved with an injury this season, Maddon has plugged Zorilla in his place.

Whether it was B.J. Upton's bum shoulder or Jason Bartlett's sprained ankle, Pat Burrell's strained neck or Akinori Iwamura's torn knee, Ben Zobrist has filled their shoes brilliantly.

He has appeared at every position save first-base, catcher, and pitcher this season, exhibiting at least passable glovework wherever he's been asked to play.

"I definitely like anywhere I can get on the field," Zobrist said. "I just want to be in that lineup. If I'm playing somewhere I'm not used to playing on a regular basis, I just try to do the best I can at that position. I feel like, defensively, wherever they stick me, I can help the team."

With that mentality, Zorilla might have even been a capable number-two starter, had Joe Maddon offered him the injured Scott Kazmir's rotation spot, while the southpaw recovers from a pulled quad.

Pitching was one thing Tony Phillips couldn't do—not to mention that the long-time super-sub never had an offensive campaign worthy of holding a candle to Zobrist's 2009.

About those incredible offensive numbers, given Zobrist's .222 career average coming into this season, fans and fantasy addicts are still apt to wonder if his monstrous breakout can possibly be sustained.

Perhaps not ... but perhaps yes.

Zobrist's .323 batting average on balls in play is a bit bloated for his unexceptional 18.1 line-drive percentage. But if Zorilla keeps driving a quarter of his fly-balls out of the yard, an average in the neighborhood of .300 isn't out of the question.

On that note, could Zobrist possibly maintain a 25.0 percent home run-per-flyball mark? He logged a 17.4 in what was considered a breakout effort last season, and 7.6 percent would be yet another significant spike. But Zorilla wouldn't be the first player to exhibit such a profound improvement in the power department.

Orioles' outfielder Luke Scott is currently riding a 25.9 HR/FB ratio, but he'd never even broached 16.2 percent in that category coming into the season. Diamondbacks' third-baseman Mark Reynolds has a soaring 28.1 dinger rate, yet his previous career best was barely more than 18 percent.

And Twins' catcher Joe Mauer—one of the early favorites for AL MVP honors—is second in the American League with a 26.5 HR/FB ledger, even though he's barely cracked the 10 percent mark in prior campaigns.

So, while skepticism about Zobrist's emergence is certainly warranted, stranger things have happened before, and are happening now.  

At this point, all fans and fantasy owners can do is marvel and hope.

Oh, and be sure to write-in Ben Zobrist on your All-Star ballots. He isn't listed among the regulars, but he has more than earned the trip.

All hail Zorilla.

If he keeps this up, you'll have no choice.