As of right now, who do you think has been the Rays' MVP?
My guess is, the vast majority of Rays fans would answer James Shields or Casey Kotchman. Both are having exceptional, career years; Shields has posted a 2.80 ERA and thrown eight complete games, and Kotchman is making a run at the batting title (.335 after Saturday's game).
Without a doubt, Shields and Kotchman deserve to have their names mentioned in any discussion about the Rays' most valuable player. But I'd like to draw your attention to another player who deserves to have his name tossed in the hat: the perpetually underrated Ben Zobrist.
After having a down 2010 season as a result of a lingering back injury, Zobrist has quietly put together an impressive bounce-back year. His triple-slash line — .277 average, .368 on-base percentage, .492 slugging percentage — is second best on the team, just behind Kotchman's .335/.394/.475. To put it another way, while Kotchman has been 45 percent above league average offensively this season, Ben Zobrist comes in at 43 percent.
And when we're trying to measure offensive value, it's important to take a player's position into account. For example, it's not fair to compare a shortstop's production to a first baseman's, as first basemen are primarily sluggers and put up lofty offensive totals. It's expected that shortstops will provide less offense, so individual expectations are lowered.
While dabbling in rightfield, Zobrist has spent the majority of this season at second base, one of the weakest offensive positions. The league-average second baseman is 4 percent below average offensively, while an average first baseman is 21 percent above average. Yet Zobrist has the third-most extra-base hits of any player in the majors (57), trailing only Curtis Granderson (60) and Justin Upton (62).
Zobrist's production makes him one of the best second basemen in the majors; in fact, if it weren't for Dustin Pedroia, he'd be the best. Here's a quick comparison:
Robinson Cano: .304/.351/.527
When you adjust for the fact that Pedroia and Cano play their home games in ballparks that inflate offense, while the Trop is a pitcher's park, Zobrist's numbers look even better. Pedroia still has a slight edge, but Pedroia is a legitimate superstar and has won an MVP award. Do we think of Zobrist in the same way?
But focusing on offense neglects another important area where Zobrist contributes value: defense. Not only is he a slick fielder who rarely makes errors (.987 fielding percentage), he covers more ground at second base than the vast majority of players.
There are multiple advanced defensive statistics that attempt to measure defensive range and value, and all of them consistently rate Zobrist as a plus-10 defender at second — meaning, he is 10 runs above average. This rating jibes with what your eyes tell you: Zobrist makes plays ranging to both his left and right that other players can only dream of making.
But that's not all. Zobrist is an above-average baserunner and is one of the best in the league at taking an extra base. He's also versatile and can play all over the diamond, and his defense in rightfield is arguably even better than his defense at second base.
He's the definition of a complete ballplayer.
Please don't take this as a knock on either Shields or Kotchman; both players are having spectacular seasons and deserve recognition.
But while both have received plenty of accolades for their success, Zobrist tends to fade into the background whenever discussions of the Rays' MVP come up.
Zobrist has more extra-base hits this season than Jose Bautista, and he has done it while playing superb defense at second base. Don't underestimate how important that is. He is a true star — a superstar, if you will — and he deserves to be recognized as one.
Steve Slowinski is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay.com, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays that specializes in analysis and statistics.