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Don't worry too much about Ben Zobrist

6/8/2012

Tampa Bay Rays second baseman/outfielder Ben Zobrist was chosen 53rd in ESPN average live drafts this spring, and of the 52 fellows selected ahead of him, each is owned in 100 percent of standard mixed leagues except Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and he has a pretty good reason. Zobrist is down to 99.1 percent owned, and I suppose to some that pretty good reason is a .200 batting average entering the second weekend of June.

Of course, I wouldn't call it a good reason to drop Zobrist at all. Let's not make too big an issue about less than 1 percent of impatience, but this is how it starts with struggling players and fantasy owners overreacting. Unless Zobrist goes off this weekend, he'll keep being dropped. It's June now, and we've had two months of baseball to evaluate, and while the established Zobrist is not hitting for average, I disagree he's "killing" your team, as many like to point out. He's one guy. And he's one really good guy, good enough to be a sixth-round pick and play arguably this season's shallowest fantasy spot, second base.

Well, I suppose I hardly buried the lead here, as you know which side I'm on; I'm not cutting Zobrist. I'm trading for him. I've been asked about Zobrist quite a bit recently, as has Rays manager Joe Maddon, and not to speak for him, but I don't think either of us is particularly worried. I watched closely as Zobrist singled and walked among his five plate appearances Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, doing so from the No. 2 lineup spot. On Wednesday, he hit cleanup. I've read the stories and heard the announcers talk about all the extra batting practice Zobrist has been putting in.

Mostly I don't believe Zobrist is a .200 hitter. I don't believe he's a .300 hitter, either, but if he does what we thought he would, there's significant improvement ahead, and let's point out he is on pace for 17 home runs, 14 stolen bases and 80 runs. It could be far worse. I mean, ESPN Fantasy projected 18 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 92 runs. That could all still happen. Can the .270 batting average? It can from here on out, and that is an important distinction versus season numbers.

What Zobrist has done so far is irrelevant from here on out; when you cut him, it's very likely the next guy or gal to own Zobrist will get something like the .270 batting average we expected. You want to own the players when they improve. Basically, don't look at his current batting average. What's done is done. Zobrist just happens to enter Friday's action with the fifth-lowest BABIP in baseball (among qualifiers), with only Ike Davis, Jose Bautista, Brendan Ryan and Rickie Weeks toting worse marks. I've mostly given up on Davis and believe the Mets will soon demote him (Lucas Duda at first base!); Ryan isn't a good hitter to start with; Weeks is a mess but a lot like Zobrist with the walks, occasional homers and steals, and the important position eligibility; and Bautista is on pace for 43 home runs. You don't get to complain about him.

There is no guarantee any of these players will see their BABIP spike upward anytime soon. It's likely, though. I do recall Aaron Hill in 2010, when his BABIP finished at .196. Bautista's was third-worst that year at .233, but he smacked 54 home runs. Last year, Vernon Wells finished with a .214 BABIP. Those are outliers, though. Most seasons, the worst marks are in the .230-.240 range. Zobrist has been a regular for three prior seasons, posting BABIPs of .326, .273 and .310. I think he's been unlucky so far. His walk rate is actually the best it's been and his in-play numbers, like line drive and fly ball rates, are consistent with past seasons. This isn't a case like Jason Heyward last season, when he was clearly doing something different or playing through injury.

Someone on Twitter pointed out to me that Zobrist hit only .238 in 2010, so perhaps expecting last season's .269 mark is folly, too. That's fine. But even if Zobrist hits .238 for the season, with what he's already done that means he'd hit, based on my math, around .260 the rest of the way. We'd take that, along with the counting numbers, from a second baseman. It's reasonable for Zobrist, a switch-hitter with no obvious platoon split, to hit .260 the rest of the way. Plus, it's worth pointing out he walks a lot (fourth in baseball), so his batting average has less impact than what say Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez is doing, with a .213 batting average but in more at-bats (and six walks, yikes).

I've already traded for Zobrist in one of my leagues, and I am trying to convince someone else to do so. I'm guessing after this blog entry that ship will have sailed. Still, I believe. This isn't Adam Dunn from last year. Zobrist will be fine. Stick with him.

And have a great weekend!