On July 12, 2006, the Tampa Bay then-Devil Rays traded their perennial cleanup hitter, Aubrey Huff, to the Houston Astros, who were looking to supplement their lineup with a bat capable of posting an .800 OPS whose name was not Lance Berkman. In return, the Devil Rays received a pair of minor leaguers who remain with the organization to this day: right-handed starter Mitch Talbot and a 25-year-old shortstop named Ben Zobrist.
Neither player came to Tampa Bay with huge expectations, and the fact that Talbot has even pitched in the major leagues should be considered a coup for the Rays, considering the rate at which young pitchers get injured. Zobrist, on the other hand, is on the verge of appearing to be more than the real deal. Over the past two seasons, the father of 4-month old Zion Benjamin Zobrist (probably the only “ZBZ” in history) has hit .270/.369/.562 over 388 plate appearances, homering once every 17.6 at-bats and playing every position except for first base, pitcher ,and catcher during that span.
Needless to say, the rise of “Zorilla” as not only a valuable major leaguer but a power-hitting, all-star-caliber slugger is a not-entirely expected development. He showed reasonable power in the minors, posting an isolated power of 141 over the course of his minor league career—a nice figure for a shortstop but hardly anything to write home about, especially when its owner is already in his mid-20’s.
The most interesting aspect of Zobrist’s game in the minors, however, is his career on-base percentage of .428. Say what you will about being old for his levels, but any player who gets on base nearly 43 percent of the time is actively doing something right.
The question now is how Zobrist’s patience-centric minor league profile translated into big-time major league power. A good comparison here is Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox ethnically misidentified “Greek God of Walks,” whose major league line through age 28 was a Zobristian .280/.383/.434.
Given, Youk was performing at the major league level, but both he and Zobrist started hitting for major power (ISO over .200) around the same age (27-28) after sporting near-identical isolated power figures up to that point. As Steven Goldman noted in a column on ESPN last month, “Youkilis hasn't sacrificed his selectivity; he's increased his versatility. The Greek God of Walks is dead; long live the Boston God of Channeled Aggression: Swing when it's smart, sit when it's not and never mind the labels.”
The same idea could be applied to Zobrist: all of those years, he spent watching and not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone appears to have resulted in a peak in which he has become adept at identifying his pitch and driving the shit out of it. With his success despite relatively low batting averages on balls in play over the past two seasons (.252 in ’08 and .306 in ’09), Zobrist doesn’t appear to be the beneficiary of any great deal of luck.
Between injuries to B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria and Akinori Iwamura, Zobrist has seen a good deal of playing time over the past two seasons and with his versatility, low cost and ridiculous power (not to mention his tendency to hit grand slams, with a franchise-record four in his young career), he looks to be a valuable contributor to what will eventually be remembered as the great Rays teams of the early 21st century.