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Was 2009 or 2010 the real aberration for Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist?

Ben Zobrist is valuable for his versatility and his strong defense wherever he plays. After a disappointing season with the bat that he attributes to a neck injury, the Rays are hoping he can return to the production that made him one of the AL’s best players two years ago.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Ben Zobrist is valuable for his versatility and his strong defense wherever he plays. After a disappointing season with the bat that he attributes to a neck injury, the Rays are hoping he can return to the production that made him one of the AL’s best players two years ago.

DUNEDIN — You can believe in the glory, or you can put your faith in the fall.

You can trust that the season with an MVP gloss was the reality and the season with dead ball numbers was the fluke.

Really, the choice is yours.

You can buy into the theory that Ben Zobrist is a bona fide star or just a nice little player whose greatest asset is his superb glove and versatility in the field.

The problem is, he has given you a year's worth of evidence for either choice.

In 2009, Zobrist looked like a revelation. A guy who could play seven positions and hit like Kevin Youkilis. He had power, patience and panache. He finished eighth in the MVP voting that year and probably should have been in the top three.

In 2010, Zobrist looked more like regression. A terrific base­runner and one of the game's best defensive weapons but a below-average player with a bat in his hands.

So what happened?

If you listen to critics, you will believe opposing pitchers adjusted to Zobrist after his breakout season and his numbers will never again approach '09 levels.

If you listen to Zobrist, you will trust that a nagging neck injury forced him to adjust his hitting stroke and led to bad habits that were finally corrected in the offseason.

"There's definitely frustration that goes on when you feel like you've taken a step back," Zobrist said. "When you know where you should be and you just can't get back there."

If his resume had a little more heft, it would be easier to write off last season as an aberration. But Zobrist, 29, came to stardom quickly and late. He went from a guy on the far end of the bench to the All-Star Game in a matter of months.

That doesn't mean he didn't earn it, and it doesn't mean he isn't a gifted ballplayer. It just makes it harder to believe a season with lots of extra-base hits should be his norm.

The greatest difference between '09 and '10 is Zobrist was no longer hitting the ball with authority. He had a ton more popups and fewer line drives.

He was also swinging at more bad pitches than the year before, even though he was among the league leaders in walks. That suggests teams were pitching him differently in terms of location, even though he was still seeing the same number of fastballs.

The overall drop was pretty dramatic. You could almost go as far as stunning. Zobrist went from a .543 slugging percentage in 2009 to a .353 in 2010. No full-time player in the majors had a bigger falloff. No one was even really close.

The Rays were not necessarily expecting another season with 27 home runs, but they did not anticipate so many weak at-bats, either.

"If I had to wager, I would say he is somewhere between both years," manager Joe Maddon said. "Home run-wise probably won't be as many as he hit a couple of years ago, but more than he hit last year. Overall batting average was just way low, and his on-base percentage suffered a bit because of that."

Zobrist traces all of the problems back to a sore neck that kept him from being able to face the pitcher with his head turned sharply at a 90-degree angle. That led to moving his hands and feet to compensate, and that resulted in his swing getting out of its slot.

"You need to be able to have both eyes on the ball with your hands back in the ready position, and I couldn't do that," Zobrist said. "I was struggling with that all year. I was turning my head, and it was keeping me from having timing and having that visual I needed where I could see the ball and just let everything fly."

Once he started tinkering, Zobrist got stuck in bad habits. He took a month off after the season but still didn't feel quite right during winter workouts.

Hitting coach Derek Shelton suggested an old drill where a hitter stands a bat's length away from a net and practices swinging without hitting the net. The idea is to make the hitting stroke more fluid and compact.

Zobrist embraced the idea and, weeks before spring training, said he began to feel like his old self in the box.

"The neck injury affected him a lot more than even we realized at the time," Shelton said. "He was trying to put himself in different positions to hit. He moved his hands, he moved his head, he moved his feet. In doing so he kind of lost what the groove of his swing was. Now that that's behind us, we've gone back to what made him successful."

The early results have been encouraging. Zobrist is hitting .278 this spring but, more important, has three doubles and a homer in 18 at-bats.

His versatility in the field, his baserunning and his ability to draw walks will make Zobrist a valuable player no matter how many home runs he hits.

On the other hand, if he gets his slugging percentage near .500 again, there will be few players in the American League more valuable.

Was 2009 or 2010 the real aberration for Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist? 03/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 14, 2011 10:45pm]
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