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Ben Zobrist's Hall of Fame case: The value of a peak

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Tampa Bay's utility man doesn't possess the longevity of most legends, but his run of dominance rivals many of them.

From 2009 onward, Zobrist has played at an elite level.
From 2009 onward, Zobrist has played at an elite level.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

For the old-school fans of baseball, Ben Zobrist probably doesn't stand out. But Beyond the Box Score doesn't really cater to those people, and their ranks appear to decrease every day. The more knowledgeable spectators know of Zobrist as a good player, but even they most likely don't think he'll be enshrined. Nonetheless, he has a strong statistical case for it, as his recent hegemony puts him in some good company.

Zobrist's modest beginnings might have something to do with his relative obscurity. The Astros drafted him in the sixth round of the 2004 draft; after he spent a few years in the minors, Andrew Friedman (RIP) acquired him in 2006, along with Mitch Talbot, in exchange for a two-month rental of Aubrey Huff.

As a 25-year-old rookie, many doubted his staying power in the majors. Indeed, he posted sub-replacement-level numbers in 2006 and 2007. Finally, in 2008, his ability started to carry over to the show: He posted 1.4 WAR in 223 trips to the dish, which helped carry the Rays to the World Series.

2009 saw Zobrist take his game to the next level, as he posted 8.5 WAR (the most in the American League). He regressed a bit in 2010, to 3.7 WAR, but topped five in each of the next four seasons. Thus, his 35.4 WAR over the past six years ranks second among position players.

I'll say that again, in case you didn't comprehend it. Since the start of the 2009 campaign, Ben Zobrist has given his team more value than:

  • Robinson Cano
  • Evan Longoria
  • Andrew McCutchen
  • Adrian Beltre
  • Joey Votto
  • Every other player except Miguel Cabrera (and Clayton Kershaw, but he's a pitcher, so who cares)

That makes for one hell of a peak — which, many would argue, comprises the key element of a Hall of Famer. Obviously, subjectivity comes into play here, since different people can define "fame" differently. I lean toward the stardom-favoring approach, as opposed to the compilation-favoring longevity argument. You can reasonably disagree; if you do, you should probably stop reading. Or you can continue reading, because Zobrist's peak might be impressive enough to change your view.

Before we dive into him, though, let's talk about peaks. Seven years is a widely-accepted standard for them, with its own stat on Baseball-Reference (WAR7). But that uses a player's best seven seasons, which hurts consistently excellent contributors such as Zobrist. Instead, I want to isolate a player's seven best consecutive seasons. This sustained hot streak will give us a great idea of the dominance of a player.

While Zobrist only has six superb seasons under his belt, we can look ahead. Steamer projects him to keep the magic going in 2015, with 4.5 WAR in 673 plate appearances. That would give him 39.9 WAR over a seven-year span. Decimal points don't mean a whole lot for projections, so we'll round up to 40.

Now, for the comparison. How many position players have at least one seven-year stretch of at least 40 excess wins? Exactly 78; if we assume Zobrist fulfills his potential, that gives us 79 men at which to look.

The most notable element: Most of these guys played phenomenally. The average career WAR of the group is 84.4, and all but three of its members (Zobrist, Hughie Jennings, and Ralph Kiner) exceed 50 in that regard. Unless Zobrist completely melts down in the next few years, he should surpass that threshold too.

More significant, however, are the names not on the list. Cap Anson, George Davis, Bill Dahlen, Derek Jeter, Fred Clarke, Luke Appling, Eddie Murray, Sam Crawford, Adrian Beltre, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmiero: All accrued at least 70 wins in their major-league tenures, and yet none matched Zobrist in this feat.

So what did those men — and, for that matter, most of those 78 — do that Zobrist didn't? Aside from excelling at one point or another, they put up mediocre seasons, and a good amount of them. Plus, many of them started earlier. Because of those facets of their careers, many fans see them as Hall of Fame-worthy, whereas Zobrist falls short in their eyes.

Again, this strikes me as unfair, but you may find it reasonable. Regardless, a few things remain true: Zobrist has succeeded for six straight seasons; he should do so for a seventh; and the small class of players that have also done so have considerably more eminence than he does. Hopefully, the last part won't stay true for long.

. . .

All data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Birds Watcher and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.