The Kansas City Royals‘ brand new acquisition Ben Zobrist hit home runs from both sides of the plate on Sunday, leading the team to a 7-6 victory over Toronto. Zobrist became the first KC Royals player to hit home runs as both a left, and right-handed hitter in the same game since Wilson Betemit pulled off the feat in 2010.
After beginning his Kansas City Royals career with a relatively quiet one-for-eight (with two RBIs), Zobrist crashed two home runs and a double on Sunday.
Right now, not too many KC Royals fans are doubting that Ben Zobrist will help the club over the final two months of the season, and—more importantly—in the playoffs. However, I still think it’s a good time to take a little deeper look at what he brings to the table strategically.
Multiple articles here on Kings of Kauffman have sort of beat to death the whole “patient switch hitter who plays plus defense at every position except catcher” narrative. And, yes, Zobrist is all of those things. The biggest caveat to that story is that Ben Zobrist has played second base, left field, and right field this season, and has negative Ultimate Zone Ratings at both second and left.
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Yet, there’s a little more to the story than the raw numbers. First of all, we could be suffering from the small sample size problems since defensive metrics don’t stabilize until you have two years of data. Second, Zobrist is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery for a left meniscus tear earlier this season.
That’s both a cause for concern, and an explanation for defensive metrics not liking him. On one hand, you can speculate that 34-year-old Ben Zobrist still possesses strong defensive skills, he just needs a bit more time to recover from injury. The other narrative is the injury has permanently reduced Zobrist’s defensive prowess, and the recent numbers signal this decline.
Either way, Zobrist is still at least playable at multiple positions on the field. And, for the Kansas City Royals current needs, that’s all he really has to be.
Because, the big reason the KC Royals want him right now is for his bat. Despite a strong July in which the team went 17-10, the Kansas City Royals lineup was certain to miss Alex Gordon‘s bat before all is said and done (Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson can, and did, do a good job making up for the loss of his glove). But, Zobrist looks like a virtual doppelganger for Gordon at the plate.
Take a gander at these two batting lines:
1.) .264/.354/.429, OPS .783, OPS+ 116, 120 HR, 30.0 oWAR (offensive fWAR)
2.) .269/.349/.436, OPS .785, OPS+ 113, 132 HR, 22.2 oWAR (offensive fWAR)
The first is Ben Zobrist (10 seasons), and the second is Alex Gordon (9 seasons). They are. Kansas City Royals fans, two peas in a pod (to use a mid-western farm metaphor).
Of course, after Gordon (hopefully) returns, Zobrist can still fill in for either Alex Rios or Omar Infante. That’s been well covered by numerous analysts. There’s another way Zobrist helps, and this applies to key games down the stretch and in the playoffs.
He gives KC Royals manager Ned Yost a lot of lineup flexibility when dealing with left-handed starters. I recently wrote about the Kansas City Royals short-comings against lefties. While not horrible, they’re significantly less efficient at scoring against the southpaws. Put an elite lefty starter on the mound against them in the playoffs, and the KC Royals could really struggle (see 2014 World Series vs. Madison Bumgarner).
Ben Zobrist helps in this scenario not only by offering the option of replacing either Rios or Infante, he could also sub for one of the Kansas City Royals left-exclusive hitters (Kendrys Morales is a switch hitter)—if, for instance, that player had a particular problem hitting a certain pitcher over their career.
With three left-only hitters in the lineup in Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer, substituting Zobrist can force a lefty starter to deal with seven hitters with a platoon advantage rather than six when facing the KC Royals. In fact, Ben Zobrist hits lefties better over his career (.813 OPS vs. left-handed pitchers as compared to .769 OPS vs. right handed pitchers).
This option could force Zobrist to play either first or third base for the Kansas City Royals, positions he has not handled at the major-league level since 2009 and 2010 respectively. However, Zobrist logged innings at shortstop last season for the Rays. You presume he could handle third if he can handle short. And, you have to think that Zobrist would have more range than Kendrys Morales at first.
The advantage here is that, not only could you stack the KC Royals lineup against a lefty, but Ned could also then have the luxury of a strong lefty bat looming when an opposing manager might want to insert a right handed reliever. In the playoffs, such a small strategic edge could prove decisive in a must-win game.
Add up all the reasons, and you can easily see why Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore couldn’t resist going out and getting Ben Zobrist for the playoff run.