After the Oakland Athletics completed their recent trade with the Tampa Bay Rays, I asked Daniel Russell of DRaysBay a few questions about Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist. Then Escobar got flipped away to the Washington Nationals for reliever Tyler Clippard, so now we don't really need to know anything about him. Here is the remaining half of the Q&A, for your enjoyment, with a bit of extra commentary to beef things up after the departure of Yunel!
1. Ben Zobrist is known for playing many positions. At which position do you think he plays his best defense? And at which others would you say he's above-average?
DR: Zobrist is above-average at the outfield corners, and competent anywhere in the infield, but he's a gem at second base. When the season is over, and you think back on 2015, my expectation is you won't be able to pick out a moment or bad feeling about Zobrist's defense, whether it's with an outfielder's glove or hunkering down on the infield dirt.
If it helps, I've always thought of Zo as an incredible second baseman whose instincts could carry him at center field if they needed to.
Alex's stat check: The defensive metrics jibe with Daniel's take. Both UZR and DRS give Zobrist excellent marks at second base, though DRS thinks he's fallen off a bit in two of the last three years. They also favor him greatly in the outfield corners, though DRS has soured on him in right lately. He has actually improved at shortstop over the years, which could be a product of experience or could just be a reminder that these stats can fluctuate in samples of only a couple hundred innings per season. He's also graded out as roughly average in center field. So, perhaps he is indeed an acceptable backup option at short and center, though I still wouldn't rely on him every day in either spot.
2. Zobrist's career splits slightly favor him as a right-handed batter (against lefties), but only barely. Did you generally feel more confident in him from one side or the other, or was it the same either way?
DR: This man is the textbook definition of consistent, and that carries over from his defensive ability to offense. I was never worried about Zo from either side, which is part of what made batting him high in the order so much fun. He's a comfortable bet batting near the top of the order because no relievers are going to scare you with him on deck.
Alex's stat check: Listed below are a few splits for Zobrist. First, his career platoon splits.
Zobrist career, vs. RHP: .254/.350/.421, .771 OPS
Zobrist career, vs. LHP: .285/.363/.447, .810 OPS
As Daniel suggested, Zobrist can handle pitchers of both hands. He's been slightly better against lefties, but it's close enough to consider him even. Are there any recent trends to change this conclusion?
Zobrist 2014, vs. RHP: .246/.338/.365, .703 OPS
Zobrist 2014, vs. LHP: .340/.399/.474, .873 OPS
My goodness! He forgot how to hit righties last year, which is a problem since most pitchers are righties! Oh, wait ...
Zobrist 2013, vs. RHP: .287/.376/.436, .812 OPS
Zobrist 2013, vs. LHP: .250/.310/.333, .643 OPS
Back in 2013, he was great against righties and couldn't hit lefties. (And in 2012, he was better against lefties again.) So really, what we're looking at here are the realities of small-sample data, which is that splits like these will fluctuate year-to-year and that the clearest picture is the larger body of work over a career (plus any pertinent subsequent info, like Coco complaining that his neck injury bothered him last year when he batted right-handed). Clearly Zobrist possesses the capacity to hit both lefties and righties.
3. Can you give us some background on the Zorilla nickname?
Zorilla Gorilla was Joe Maddon's handiwork, and probably came about when the slender defender started hitting for power in the team's lost 2009 season. It's possible it came from earlier as a joke, but he certainly earned it with that 27-homer season.
Funny enough, Zorilla's are a real life thing. It's a type of weasel in Africa that's striped like an NFL umpire's uniform. Took some wind out of the sails of that nickname until this bad boy came about:
Alex's stat check: Umm ... Here's a link to the zorilla page on Wikipedia? It's also known as a "striped polecat," which reminds me of Little League one year when the teams were named after minor league clubs for some reason. I was on the Durham Bulls, a team that Zobrist later played for in real life (Rays' Triple-A affiliate). One of the other teams was named after the now-defunct Albany Polecats. I always wondered what a polecat was, and this was just before Google was founded so I guess I never looked it up. Now I know, nearly 17 years later.
Thanks for taking some time to tell us about our new player, Daniel!