If this were any other player who was mere days from turning 35, I wouldn't be writing this story, and if this were any other Ben Zobrist story, I'd be writing a lot about baseball's standard-bearer for utility men that's been written 100 times over and over again. Thankfully, this is neither of those.
For majority of his career, Zobrist's name has been synonymous with versatility. He made being an everyday utility man cool and trendy, particularly under the tutelage of Rays manager Joe Maddon. He made being a utility man so cool, in fact, that baseball's more advanced minds bordered on a hipster-like tone in declaring their love for Zobrist's style, even before he was among the most-sought free agents this winter.
Zobrist is a player who flew under the radar of traditional-minded front offices to average about 5-6 WAR for six seasons, basically unnoticed. Last year he missed 30 games and showed signs of physical, offensive, and defensive decline, but despite this he still landed a four-year, $56 million deal at age 34. Unsurprisingly, he signed with the Cubs and reunited with Maddon. Underrated no more, there was concern this winter he was now overrated.
Up to this year, this was essentially the Zobrist story, in a nutshell, but this year is a new chapter. The new understanding of Zobrist includes a bit of a plot twist, as he has emerged as an older and wiser hitter at time when most established hitters rarely change and mostly decline.
Zobrist has always been a relatively patient hitter who generates a significant amount of contact, so the sudden jump in walk rate in 2016 isn't completely implausible considering his knowledge of the zone. This is also clear in the downward trend in strikeouts throughout his last five seasons.
It's always a little cliché to suggest an aging hitter can combat his inevitable regression by becoming more patient...'so and so needs to walk more and strike out less...', but it is easier said than done, and rarely does it happen for established hitters. Throughout Zobrist's entire career, however, he has defied what normally happens, so perhaps we should not be all that surprised when he bucks a trend.
The other factor playing in favor of his newfound ability to draw more walks is the Cubs' philosophy to encourage their players to be more patient. As you can see from the FanGraphs leaderboard, no team walks more than the Cubs. Signing Zobrist and Jason Heyward in free agency was part of that plan, which is proving advantageous in them steamrolling the rest of the league.
Looking at PITCHf/x to discern Zobrist's plate discipline, there are some trends:
It is easy to pick out that Zobrist is seeing significantly fewer pitches in the zone than he ever has and isn't swinging as much, evidenced by a 3 percentage point drop in his outside-the-zone swing rate. His overall swing rate is also down to a career low, and contact is at a career high. The latter — overall swing and contact — could fluctuate up or down very easily if he sees more strikes.
Overall, though, there is nothing to suggest a sharp regression in Zobrist's plate discipline. He's seeing fewer strikes, so he's swinging less. Simple.
For more evidence of his new approach, I offer up two charts from Baseball Savant. The first shows a breakdown of pitch outcomes for Zobrist and the second a heat map of where opponents have pitched him in 2016.
And the heat map:
The first chart shows Zobrist is taking an exceptional amount of pitches, whether they are balls or called strikes, and whiffing an extremely small amount (3.4 percent). His career swinging strike rate is just 5.7 percent, but his career best was set just last year at 4.2 percent, setting some precedent for late-career improvement.
The above heat map shows pitchers are avoiding the zone, generally targeting the lower portion and likely trying to force ground balls.
With one of the more statistically-advanced front offices and managers, it's reasonable to suggest the Cubs and Zobrist are using these data effectively to hone his approach. Combined with his career history as a low-strikeout hitter with a good idea of the zone, it is also reasonable to think Zobrist can maintain this patience and appetite for walks.
If that is the case, he's making a late career adjustment and proving in a new way how he's one of baseball's historically versatile players, much like he was the first time we heard of Ben Zobrist.
**Statistics via FanGraphs
Jerry Burnes is a contributor Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @jerryburnes.