When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016, they did it with incredible balance. They ranked first in offensive WAR at 36.4 according to FanGraphs and were ranked fourth in wRC+ at 106. Their pitching was similarly elite, fifth in WAR at 20.5 and fifth in FIP at 3.77. When one side of the ball failed them they were buoyed by the other.
That offense itself was lifted by a pair of MVP candidates in Kris Bryant (the ultimate winner) and Anthony Rizzo with their near identical wRC+ (148 and 145 respectively) and some other solid performers. In 2018, that team-wide balance isn’t quite so present, even as the Cubs make the postseason again, with yet another MVP candidate.
That man, Javier Baez, is having a career year. But beside him, and in some ways outperforming him, is an old standby in the “overlooked” category, Ben Zobrist. For yet another year, Zobrist has found himself an integral piece in a Joe Maddon- helmed squad.
Zobrist is, in a word, ageless. Here we have a 37-year old player, ostensibly five or six years past his prime, playing like he’s 27 and posting a 124 wRC+. Actually, he’s out-hitting his 27-year old self by the thinnest of hairs - he logged a 123 wRC+ in 67 games that year - and he’s still the same uber-valuable super-mega-sub player he’s always been.
For this alone, he’s demonstrating a value the Cubs would be nearly lost without. Baez has gone nuclear, but they have needed a steadying force that Zobrist has been in the offense with their two biggest stars having such down years (Rizzo at 125 wRC+, Bryant at 126), and their two corner outfield spots either having platoon problems or being a merely league average bat.
This is what the Cubs need. Right now they can’t quite compete with the combination of might and depth of a lineup like the Dodgers, but they do have perhaps the second deepest lineup in the NL. Four of their players including Zobrist own a wRC+ above 120, and six top 110. This includes the recently acquired Daniel Murphy’s 117 as a Cub, though he’s posting a 110 wRC+ for the balance of the season.
Compare that to the Dodgers’ sheer power (two guys over 150, seven over 120 and ten topping 110), the the Brewers (three and five including Curtis Granderson’s whole season), Rockies (three and five) and Braves (two and four), you see a piece of the greater image of how these teams are winning. The Cubs don’t need to out-slug other teams, but they can certainly grind out at-bats and keep pitchers on their toes. Without Zobrist, that’s much harder to do.
He’s going to be a central figure in their October plans, it’s just figuring out where. While their true MVP candidate is ensconced at shortstop, Addison Russell’s suspension didn’t allow Zobrist to take over there, even if the Cubs would have been perfectly comfortable with that. The almost vanity move for Daniel Murphy (it never hurts to have more bats, of course) means Zobrist displaces a corner outfielder. This year he’s played both positions, 414 innings in right and 127 in left.
So, depending on what the Cubs value in the Wild Card game (an perhaps the NLDS should they make it) he’s going to make either a great glove or a loud bat sit on the bench. Personally I lean toward the glove in a small sample size situation like a one-game playoff, since a single hit can change the game. Of course, that one hit can be a bloop single dropping in front of a lackluster outfielder, so it’s a tough gamble.
There’s no real rhyme or reason why he’s still so good. It’s not how age works. We thought anyway. The Cubs are blessed to have him though. And as great as Baez has been at the plate, the Cubs probably wouldn’t be where they are without the versatility and, frankly, excellence of Zobrist. They wouldn’t have won a championship without him two years ago either. Neither would the Royals, a year before that. He’s not a flashy guy at all. But he’s showing this year, one more time, he might be the perfect baseball player.
Merritt Rohlfing writes all things baseball at Beyond the Box Score and Indians-focused at Let’s Go Tribe, among other places, and podcast at Let’s Go Tribe as well. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.