By now we know better than to trust small sample sizes of only a few dozen plate appearances when it comes to evaluating a player. Virtually anything can happen within such a tiny amount of time, and using it to make a performance judgment can lead to some nutty conclusions. But when it comes to, say, naming the MVP of the World Series, you need to make the decision based off of 30 or so plate appearances – and that's great.
Since the award was first awarded in 1955 (Johnny Podres was the inaugural winner), there have been more unlikely heroes to win the award than there have been stars. For every Derek Jeter there's a Donn Clendenon. For every Reggie Jackson there's a Scott Brosius or Lew Burdette.
2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist falls into both categories. For some, Zobrist has been the most underappreciated star player this side of Mike Trout since his breakout 2009 campaign with the Tampa Bay Rays. For others (who perhaps rely more on traditional stats), he was overrated. After all, in 11 years he has only once hit above .280 (2009), twice had more than 80 RBIs (2009, 2011) and has cleared 20 home runs only three times (most recently in 2012).
But this is neither the time nor the place to take a sabermetric victory lap on Zobrist. (Ironically, I tend to find those sorts of articles quite annoying.) Ben Zobrist didn't need to win the World Series MVP for any kind of vindication of his talents.
Instead, this is the time and place to talk about the only athlete to win a World Series in 2015 and 2016 – Ben Zobrist. Naturally, that means that we should take a look at what Zobrist did in 2015 with the Kansas City Royals and compare it to 2016 with the Chicago Cubs. So let's get down to it.
Table 1. - Ben Zobrist 2015-2016 World Series Comparison
These data show exactly what any narrative from anyone who has watched the last two World Series would tell you: Zobrist had a good World Series in 2015 with the Royals, and a great World Series in 2016 with the Cubs.
That – along with the part about him having the game-winning double in the top of the 10th inning in game seven – is a big reason why he was crowned the MVP of 2016's World Series. Now let's zoom out and compare the slightly larger (but still very small) samples of the entire postseason.
Table 2. - Ben Zobrist 2015-2016 Playoff Comparison
This leads to another obvious takeaway – Zobrist was far better in the 2015 ALDS and ALCS than he was in the 2016 NLDS and NLCS, and his gap in World Series performances was not enough to cover this up. He posted a 132 wRC+ in the 2015 postseason and only an 82 mark in 2016. Heck, in the first two rounds in 2016, Zobrist hit a combined .167/.244/.250! But he had his best series when it mattered most in 2016 – on the grandest stage in American sports (no matter what the NFL might have you believe).
As is true in almost every case, the cold, hard, context-neutral numbers don't tell the entire story. So let's add some color to this black-and-white painting by inserting some context.
In 2016, Zobrist posted a .212 WPA in the World Series, but even that is misleading. His WPA in Game 7 alone was .230! With the Royals last year Zobrist had a .466 WPA, mostly buoyed by his 3-for-6 performance in Game 1. The average leverage index for the situations in which Zobrist appeared was also greater in 2015 than in 2016, though not by a large margin – 1.28 to 1.17.
This should not diminish his excellence in 2016, but bring more to light his excellence in 2015. In fact, by WPA, Zobrist not only had a better series than 2015 MVP Salvador Perez; he had a much better series. At -0.126, Perez was significantly worse than Zobrist, and in higher-leverage situations (1.61 aLI). But Perez had better context-neutral numbers (.364/.391/.455) than Zobrist.
For the 35-year-old Zobrist, the World Series MVP is the crowning achievement on a career that has been far too underappreciated – even in victory. Surely he'll enjoy the spoils of victory for the remainder of the offseason, then get back to doing what he does best – being a darn good ballplayer.
Joe Vasile is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score, asports broadcaster with ESPN Radio Williamsport, and a minor league free agent. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeVasilePBP.