There's a real echo chamber effect to being on the internet and interacting only with people you like, more or less. It can seem as if basically everyone thinks roughly the same things as you, because those are the only people you hear from. I think that's why I have the idea that Ben Zobrist's greatness is totally uncontroversial in 2016. I don't know if it is or not, and frankly I have no desire to listen to six hours of Chicago sports radio to try to find out.
But I remember that not always being the case, even among smart people. Less than two years ago, Neil Weinberg broke the phenomenon down for the Hardball Times, hypothesizing that Zobrist's flexibility led to him being drastically underrated. Most players who, like Zobrist, can play four or five positions are not good enough to be a regular at any one, which is why they move. The wonder of Zobrist is that he is good enough and still can (or is willing to) move from position to position, offering a team both flexibility and excellent performance.
At some point, however, I think the message got garbled. "You think Zobrist is worse than he is because of his versatility" became "Zobrist is better than you think he is because of his versatility." The perception became that his ability to play those positions was what made him a valuable player, not above-average fielding and a 120 wRC+ at positions high on the defensive spectrum. His flexibility brings fringe benefits, like channeling plate appearances away from bench players and having the platoon advantage more often, but it's not what makes Zobrist good, contrary to the current vibe. I'm usually skeptical of articles that claim to have some insight into the perception of others, but here I feel OK about that conclusion, for one reason: Brock Holt.
The 27-year-old Red Sox has been hailed as a "Ben Zobrist-type" in numerous articles, starting last year in his All-Star 2015 and continuing through to today. In this article, Holt and Zobrist are grouped together as "premier players at the utility position"; here, Holt is described as pushing forward the trend Zobrist started (and Zobrist's "super-utility" status is given as the reason for his $56m contract this winter); and here, an anonymous scout is quoted as saying he prefers Holt to Zobrist. This makes sense only if you think versatility is what gives Zobrist value, not his offense and defense.
If that's the case, then sure, Holt is comparable to Zobrist – after all, he can cover a greater range of positions! – but if you focus on real value, there's no equating the two. Let's start by looking at their respective defensive abilities.
|Position||Zobrist Inn||Zobrist UZR/150||Holt Inn||Holt UZR/150|
Zobrist's innings have been focused at 2B, SS, and RF, while Holt has spent the most time at 2B, 3B, and RF. Defensive metrics are extremely unreliable in small samples, so ignore those in the above table based on only a few innings. All of Holt's numbers are admittedly based on only a few innings, so they should all be taken with a grain of salt, but they're also all we have.
Focusing on the two positions where they both have spent a lot of time, they've been roughly equal in RF, and Zobrist has been significantly better at 2B. Those values don't include the positional adjustment, reflecting the greater difficulty of, say, CF over 1B, so it's tough to get a sense for their true defensive ability just from the above table. If you look at their total defensive value on a rate basis (FanGraphs's Def, which includes the positional adjustment, prorated to a full season of 600 PAs), Zobrist grades out at 7.1 runs for his career versus Holt's -0.6.
The difference between an average SS and an average 3B or 2B is 5.0 runs, per FanGraphs' positional adjustment, to give you a more concrete sense of what the 7.7 run gap between Zobrist and Holt means. Maybe you think Holt's overall numbers have been pulled down somewhat by his versatility – he's put in 705 innings at 3B that the metrics do not view kindly – but the takeaway is that Zobrist has been substantially more valuable in the field than Holt.
Zobrist's advantage is even clearer offensively. Holt, over 1,145 career PAs, has run a 94 wRC+, with identical 98s in both 2014 and 2015. Without much of a track record, it's hard to tell exactly what his offensive profile is, but both those years also featured above-average BABIPs of .349 and .350 respectively. Using Alex Chamberlain's xBABIP formula, which calculates an expected BABIP based on batted-ball types, quality of contact, and speed, Holt's xBABIP for 2014–15 is .334, so it's plausible he's not actually experiencing a lot of batted ball luck. For what it's worth, the projections also think his BABIP will stay relatively high, with ZiPS projecting a .338 and Steamer a .334.
Still, the overall picture is not of an offensive powerhouse. Holt has a career ISO of .093, comparable last year to players like Billy Burns and Chris Owens, with most of his batting value coming from a good walk rate of 7.9 percent for his career (9.0% in 2015) and resulting OBP of .335. He's projected by Steamer for a 90 wRC+ in 2016 and by ZiPS for an 89.
Zobrist, on the other hand, has a track record of just over 5,000 PAs, so we can be much more confident about who he is. His career ISO is .166, and four of the five years from 2008 to 2012 saw him with an ISO over .200. His walk rate is nearly elite, at 12.0 percent for his career (which would've been top-20 among qualified batters in 2015), and his OBP is similarly solid, at .355. Some years have been better than others, but overall Zobrist has been consistently excellent, with a 118 career wRC+, and is projected for a 112 by Steamer and a 118 by ZiPS in 2016. In other words, Zobrist's offensive projection is similar to Adrian Beltre's or Yoenis Cespedes's, while Holt's is similar to Chris Iannetta's or Austin Jackson's.
This isn't to rain on Holt; he's an extremely useful player to have on a roster, as the Red Sox found out last year and will likely confirm this year. But while his value mostly comes from his versatility – a light-hitting player without significant defensive ability is going to struggle to find playing time if he can't move around the diamond – Zobrist's value comes from his offense and defense. By equating the two, people are making the same mistake originally made with regards to Zobrist: lumping him in with archetypal utility guys, who don't hit or field particularly well but can play everywhere. Ben Zobrist can both hit and field particularly well, in addition to playing everywhere, and that puts him in a class apart from the Brock Holts of the world.
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Henry Druschel is an extremely versatile Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.