In July 2004, I went to a Tri-City ValleyCats (short-season A-ball) game with my uncle and his family. Pitcher Ryan McKeller (who eventually got as high as Triple-A and is currently in Double-A) retired the first 15 Lowell Spinners batters, and the ValleyCats won the game.
The ValleyCats' star player at the time was slugging first baseman Mario Garza, who never advanced past High-A and is out of baseball now.
However, the No. 6 hitter that day was current Astros outfielder Hunter Pence (funny story: during the game, Pence lost control of his bat on two straight swings, sending it flying into the stands past third base twice in a row), and the No. 9 hitter was Ben Zobrist.
Zobrist, the ValleyCats' shortstop, had a nice little year then, hitting .339/.438/.463, but he was a 23-year-old in short-season ball. He was hitting ninth in that game for a reason: he had very little power.
Zobrist hit four homers in 2004, and five in 2005, a campaign he split between Low-A and High-A. Zobrist's .400+ OBPs and solid defense kept him interesting, but he was a 24-year-old A-ball hitter with a good approach, solid shortstop defense, and no power.
Scouts graded him a utility type at best, and Baseball Prospectus 2006's comment on Zobrist was quick and dismissive, stating that Zobrist was too old for his levels and that he had knee problems which further jeopardized any potential he held.
Zobrist recovered well from his injury, however, and has been more or less healthy since. In 2006, he hit .327/.434/.473 at Double-A as a 25-year-old.
Houston saw little in him, so the Astros traded the shortstop to Tampa Bay, along with pitching prospect Mitch Talbot, for Aubrey Huff. Talbot was the key to the deal—Zobrist was basically a throw-in.
The Devil Rays (that's what they were called at the time) immediately promoted Zobrist to Triple-A, where he did okay. But after 18 games there, the 25-year-old was rushed to the majors. He looked completely out of place, hitting .224/.260/.311 in a fairly large 183-AB sample size.
Zobrist's struggles in 2006 seemed to cement that he was a utility guy whose only claim to a big league job was a good glove and versatility. His .260 OBP was far removed from the .432 minor league mark he boasted, and Zobrist had no power to compensate; he again hit five homers in 2006.
Zobrist's 2007 season was a disaster; he hit .155/.184/.206 in 97 major league at-bats. He hit .279/.403/.455 in Triple-A, setting a career high in Isolated Power, but he was already 26 and had done nothing with half a season's worth of playing time in the majors.
At this point, I still believed Zobrist could be a decent hitter, maybe in the .260/.350/.370 range. Most people thought he was just another Quad-A guy.
At age 27, Zobrist came out on fire in Triple-A in 2008, hitting .366/.471/.577 in 20 games. With that sort of line, and Zobrist's plus defense, the Rays basically had to give him another look, past failures or not.
The Tampa Bay Zobrist of 2008 was a completely different player. He only hit .253, and just managed a .339 OBP, far below his minor league marks (.318 and .429 for his career), but all of a sudden, he was a power hitter. Zobrist slugged .505, with an Isolated Power of .252, nearly double his minor league ISO of .141.
That was a medium-sized 198-AB sample, so most people (including myself) figured it was a little bit of maturation and a lot of luck. Baseball Prospectus 2009 said "Expecting him to deliver a home run every 16.5 at-bats again is a bit of a pipe dream."
Well, here we are in 2009, and Zobrist hasn't hit a home run every 16.5 at-bats.
He's hit one every 13.1.
Ben Zobrist is currently leading the AL in OPS. He's hitting a staggering .289/.399/.629.
Zobrist slugged .413, with a .109 ISO, in the Low-A South Atlantic League as a 24-year-old. Now, at 28, he leads the American League in both categories.
How did this happen?
Before I go into that, I'm going to address the elephant in the room, because I know I'm going to get comments on it. Major League Baseball has the strongest drug-testing program in professional sports, and this is America, where our justice system dictates that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
There's zero evidence that Ben Zobrist used steroids. Of course, the possibility exists for him as much as it does for anyone else, but if you have no proof of it, blaming Zobrist's offensive explosion on steroids is just plain lazy.
Back to Zobrist.
When players go through power spikes, it's usually in their early twenties, continuing gradually until about 28 or so, and then stopping. But Zobrist's power was fairly constant until he showed a little bit of pop in Triple-A in 2007, a good amount in the majors last year, and now the Pujols-level he's at so far.
Zobrist's bat seems to have gone from Augie Ojeda to Chase Utley in two years. What's he done differently?
When he came into the league, Zobrist hit a high percentage of line drives (20 percent or higher in 2006 and 2007). He only hit 13.5 percent last year and 17.4 percent so far this year. His groundball percentage has always been between 42 percent and 47 percent, so that hasn't changed much. The answer doesn't lie in those two numbers.
Looking further, there are better answers. Zobrist's popup percentages have decreased every year (12.8 percent in 2006, then 10.7 percent, then a big drop to 5.8 percent, now 1.6 percent this year). That's significant; popups are almost always outs.
So Zobrist has cut out 87.5 percent of the popups he hit when he first broke into the majors. That means that an extra 11.2 percent of his hits can be something else. Since his liners have gone down, and his grounders have held steady, where did the missing infield flies go.
Simple. They became outfield flies.
Indeed, Zobrist's outfield fly percentages were in the 30 percents for his first two years, and the 40 percents for the last two years. So he's hitting more long flies. That makes sense.
But the increase from 30.1 percent to 40.6 percent doesn't explain a 250-point ISO jump.
There's another number that does.
In 2006, 4.3 percent of Zobrist's fly balls left the park. In 2007, that declined to just 3.7 percent.
However, in 2008, the HR/FB figure soared to 17.4 percent. This year, it's an even more astonishing 23.8 percent. That means one in every four outfield flies Ben Zobrist hits is a home run. Coming into the league, it was one in 25.
How could a number jump dramatically like that? Well, let's jump back from all the numbers for a second and think practically.
Zobrist came up as a line-drive hitter. That's what his swing was geared to do—hit liners. So he hit a lot of liners, and when he hit a fly ball, it was a mis-hit, with his bat getting under the ball. Because his swing didn't have much loft to it, his flies didn't go much of anywhere, so few left the park.
Obviously, that strategy of hitting failed for Zobrist, and two years of futility can lead a player to change his approach. Perhaps Zobrist, who's got a big frame at 6'4" 200lbs, decided to bulk up and add some swing loft.
If he did something like that toward the end of 2007, it began to show in his power numbers. Then, as he got more comfortable with his new swing in 2008, he began to hit for even more power.
Because he had a flyball-oriented swing, he actually needed to hit the ball square to hit a fly ball, so his flies were thus hit much harder.
Given that his swing was designed to produce them, it would also follow that Zobrist would hit more flies. His FB% actually dropped slightly from 2008 to 2009, and he's hit a few more liners this year, so it's clear that the big change occurred between 2007 and 2008.
2009 could just be a natural byproduct of getting stronger and more acquainted with the swing mechanics. 17.4 percent to 23.8 percent is a much easier jump to explain that 3.6 percent to 17.4 percent.
Of course, I have as little of a basis for that theory as the people who yell "he's on the juice" when this sort of thing happens do.
But if that's not what happened, then what the hell is going on here?
If anyone else here has another theory, I'd love to hear it. Hit me up in the comments.
This is why I love baseball; in no other sport do big ebbs and flows in the statistics occur this frequently. No matter how much you know about the game, you can't see everything coming. I pride myself on my minor league knowledge; I've kept tabs on Zobrist since that 2004 game. I never saw this coming.
Heck, I doubt Ben Zobrist saw this coming.
But here he is, and while Zobrist may not end up as this sort of MVP-caliber hitter, he's sure proven that he's one of the top infielders in the game. His complete transformation from OBP-oriented gap hitter to major league slugger is truly incredible.
Ben Zobrist proves that even the best players can sometimes come out of nowhere.