The Courtroom: Ben Zobrist v. Brian Roberts

George FitopoulosContributor IFebruary 27, 2010

BOSTON - SEPTEMBER 13:  Ben Zobrist #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays gets a hit against the Boston Red Sox on September 8, 2009 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Cases already heard:

Cabrera v. Fielder
Upton v. McCutchen
Sandoval v. Youkilis
Lester v. Lee

All rise! Court is now in session.

In our fifth case, we have the Plaintiff, Mr. Ben Zobrist, vs. the Defendant, Mr. Brian Roberts.  Mr. Zobrist claims that he is more deserving of being your starting second basemen, and as a result he should be drafted ahead of Mr. Roberts. Arguing on the behalf of Mr. Zobrist is Chris Campanelli, and arguing on the behalf of Mr. Roberts is George Fitopoulos.

Let’s get it on!

Opening Statements

Chris says

All Ben Zobrist needed was opportunity. Prior to 2009, Zobrist was never given the chance to showcase his skills and as a result, he never had more than 200 ABs in a season. However, that all changed in 2009.  His dynamic bat forced him into Joe Maddon’s everyday lineup and earned him 501 ABs. 

With those ABs, Zobrist batted .297 wit 27 HR and 91 RBI.  He also scored 91 R and stole 17 bases.  This dazzling line easily made Zobrist one of fantasy’s best second basemen last year.

With Akinori Iwamura traded to Pittsburgh, Zobrist will be entrenched as the Rays' everyday second baseman and should receive even more ABs than last year.  In his second full season as an MLB player, Zobrist should continue his ascent to fantasy stardom.


George Says

Over the last three seasons, Brian Roberts has been as good as they come in terms of offensive production from second base. He has consistently been a top-five fantasy option at his position thanks to his combination of power and speed. Roberts’ 2009 season (16 HR, 30 SB) is the type of player I believe he is turning into, and that combination at the second base position can only be outdone by the likes of Chase Utley and Ian Kinsler.

With Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Nick Markakis all hitting directly behind Robert this year, he could put up some monster run totals offensively, and let’s not forget Noland Reimold, who is still coming into his own, and the newly-acquired Miguel Tejada and Garrett Atkins.

Consider that in the last two seasons, Roberts has put himself into scoring position 116 times (107 doubles, 9 triples), and that’s not including his 70 stolen bases. He should have no trouble producing in fantasy this season as the Orioles offense is going to be sneaky good. And it all starts up top with Roberts.


Chris says

Ben Zobrist should be drafted ahead of Brian Roberts because he is more of a complete player.  Zobrist had the advantage over Roberts last year in AVG (.297 to .283), HR (27 to 16) and RBI (91 to 79).  The only advantages Roberts had over Zobrist were R and SB.  However, Zobrist was still strong in those categories, scoring 91 R and stealing 17 bases.

Although Roberts seems to have a strong advantage in SB (30 vs. 17), I suspect the gap will close next year.  The SB totals for Roberts have been trending downward at an alarming rate.  After stealing 50 bases in 2007, he stole 40 in 2008, and 30 last year.  While I won’t predict his SB total to fall to 20 next year, I don’t expect it to reach 30 again. 

After all, he is 32 years old and has a lot of wear and tear on his legs.  As for Zobrist, I believe he has room for growth in his SB totals considering he stole 36 bases in the minors in 2005 and 26 in the minors in 2006.

The most important reason to draft Zobrist over Roberts is the distinct power advantage.  While Roberts is a leadoff hitter, Zobrist is the cleanup hitter for one of baseball’s most prolific lineups with the likes of Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford, and Evan Longoria hitting in front of him.

Rest assured, Zobrist’s 2009 power numbers were not a fluke.  Last year, Zobrist’s AB/HR ratio was 18.55, worse than his AB/HR ratio in 2008 of 16.5. Zobrist also significantly improved his plate discipline last year, walking once every 5.51 ABs and finishing the year with 91 walks. 

His O-Swing% (Percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) was 19.3 percent, which was much better than the league average of 25.1 percent.  With good plate discipline, Zobrist is better able to wait for his pitch and drive it when it comes through the zone.

George Says

Let me address Roberts’ power first. His ISO (isolated power) has increased in three straight years and it’s not all because of the long ball. Since 2007, Roberts has smashed 200 extra base hits, and his 79 RBI last season were a career-high. Do I think he will match that output?

Well, it’s clear that his power is here to stay, and while he may not match his 16 HR from last year, he will reach double digits without any problem. With this increased power and the improvement in the Orioles lineup, fantasy owners should feel pretty confident that Roberts will knock in 70+ runs this season.

It’s also ridiculous to think that Roberts won’t reach 30 steals this season, and I’ll even go one better—I think Roberts is almost a lock for 35 steals this year. Yes, his 2009 total of 30 steals was his lowest since 2005, but it’s because he wasn’t getting on base as often as he usually does.  

In 2009, he posted his lowest OBP (.356) and BABIP (.318) totals since 2004, which led to his lowest batting average (.283) since—you guessed it—2004. Put Roberts on base at his normal rate and you easily get at least five more steals out of him last season.

So, the big question now is which is more valuable—the power or the speed? Well in 2009, 53 hitters hit 25 or more HR, but only 15 hitters were able to steal 30 bases. It seems to me that Roberts’ steals would be more valuable to your fantasy team than Zobrist’s power.  The fact that Roberts has the ability to hit for some power on top of that makes him the better choice here.

Closing Statements

Chris says

Roberts will steal 30 bases easily you say?  I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with that bold prediction.  Last year, out of the 17 players that stole 30 or more bases, only three of them were 32 years or older (Roberts’ age).  Those three players were Derek Jeter, Juan Pierre and Scott Podsednik, and they all stole exactly 30 bases. 

Therefore, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect 35 stolen bases out of Roberts next year considering no player as old as Roberts stole that many bases last year.

I’m also going to have to disagree with the notion that Roberts will drive in 70+ runs.  In the three years prior to 2009, Roberts’ RBI totals were 55, 57 and 57, respectively.  While it is true that Roberts has improved his ISO in three straight years, I don’t think that’s enough to justify a huge spike in RBI.  Consider this: In 2005, Roberts batted .314 with an ISO of .201 and managed 73 RBI. 

Last year, Roberts batted .283 with an ISO of .168 and managed 79 RBI.  The 79 RBI seem a bit fluky if you ask me, which leads me to believe that a total in the low- to mid-60s is a more reasonable expectation.

While I agree that speed is more valuable than power in general, that argument is not applicable here because Zobrist has power AND speed while Roberts only has speed.

You can take the aging second baseman and hope that this isn’t the year his skills start to decline.  I’ll take the second baseman just entering his prime.


George Says

Here are some examples of players who stole 30+ bases after the age of 32: Ichiro Suzuki stole 33, 45, 37 and 43 bases in four of his last five seasons, Bobby Abreu stole 30 bases twice in his last four seasons, and Derek Jeter stole 34 and 30 in two of his last four seasons.

The points is, it is not impossible for older players to reach 30 steals.

Now, I agree that Zobrist was the better hitter last season, but that does not mean he is going to be better in 2010. Considering Zobrist’s possible career year gave him only a one-spot advantage over Roberts in the 2009 final ranks, I am not ready to crown a new king. There are just too many questions with Zobrist entering 2010 such as whether his .326 BABIP is for real or if it will be closer to his .252 mark in 2008.

You also have to worry about his ability to produce throughout an entire season. Last year, his second half line was .298/.395/.490, which is very good, but nowhere near his first half line of .297/.414/.598. Which one will we see in 2010?

The bottom line is you know that you will get a .290-ish average with 100+ R, 10+ HR, 65+ RBI and 30+ SB from Roberts, and I will take that line set in stone over the uncertainty of Zobrist. There is a mantra when drafting in fantasy baseball, and it states that you should never pay for a career year. Buyer beware.


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