zobrist_hit_chart_5.11.10

Reader Week: Why is Ben Zobrist’s Power Zapped?

This week is going to feature players deemed “the biggest question mark” specifically identified by FB365 readers. If you have a player for specific evaluation, email contactfb365@gmail.com.

The 2009 season was a magical one for Ben Zobrist. He hit .297/.405/.543 with 27 home runs in 501 at-bats. That season not only caused Zobrist’s value to skyrocket on draft day 2010, but it became a big topic for debate in the months prior to the draft. The Rays seemed to think Zobrist was the real deal, they signed him to a three-year contract extension.

Fast forward to May 11, 2010: Zobrist is hitting .267/.346/.358 with zero home runs in 120 at-bats.

I think most people expected a regression from Zobrist, something in the range of .285/.370/.485 with around 20 home runs and 15 stolen bases. It’s still early enough for Zobrist’s AVG to rise and he already has six steals, but the power outage is concerning as well as the regression in walks, down about five percent from last season so far, which has really hurt him in OBP leagues.

One problem for Zobrist has been hitting from the right side of the plate. Last season Zobrist hit a robust .319 from the right side while averaging one homer run every 18 at-bats. This season he’s hitting .234 with a .289 BABIP and a meagre eight percent line drive rate. He’s also taking fewer walks as a right-handed batter (7.7 percent walk rate).

Last season Zobrist held a .326 BABIP, but his BABIP from the right side was a highly inflated and highly unrepeatable .358.

While problems hitting right-handed may be affecting his overall AVG and OBP, it doesn’t help explain the lack of power so far in 2010.

Zobrist has always had pop in his bat, even his minor league AB/HR rates translated into 20 home runs per season, but somehow, through 120 at-bats this season, Zobrist has failed to go yard. Not just that, but he really hasn’t even been coming all that close. Below is Zobrist’s home game hit chart from MLB.com showing his doubles (d), triple (t) and flyouts (red f).

Last season it looked like this…

zobrist_hit_chart_2009

So far in 2010 home games, Zobrist has only flied out to a deep part of the field once. He also hasn’t hit a double at home to left field. This information is a small sample size, but it got me wondering if Zoberist’s balls in play are different this year and if it could affect his power. Below is a chart of the percentage of balls in play to each field, separated by right-handed and left-handed.

2010
As RHB As LHB
Pull 29% Pull 23%
Middle 66% Middle 67%
Oppo 5% Oppo 10%
2009
As RHB As LHB
Pull 37% Pull 29%
Middle 50% Middle 58%
Oppo 13% Oppo 12%
Difference
As RHB As LHB
Pull -8% Pull -6%
Middle 16% Middle 9%
Oppo -8% Oppo -2%

One thing is clear; Zobrist is hitting the ball up the middle with more frequency, both right and left-handed. With that in mind, look at his home run chart from 2009 (via hittrackeronline.com)

zobrist_ben_2009_scatter

Almost all of Zobrist’s home runs last season were hit, distinctly, to either left or right field.

What does this all mean with regards to his 2010 power? It shows that Zobrist has put more balls in play to his non-power field, which is center. Consequently he has lowered the chances for his balls in play to go over the fence.

Can this change? Yes. Zobrist has 120 at-bats on the season. Chances are he’ll get at least 400 more. The skewed stats, such as an increase in swings at pitches outside the strike-zone by about seven percent and a higher whiff rate by two percent, show a batter that is more likely pressing to hard than naturally regressing.

Zobrist has a track record of good plate discipline and good power. Was he likely to live up to last season’s production? No, but he’s also not this bad.

There is time, and 400-plus at-bats, for things to turn around. Sometimes the stats just don’t tell us everything. Is the pressure of his new contract combined with a slow start mentally damaging his game? Maybe, but you’d have to ask the man himself.

Based on his track record, Zobrist should find his power stroke soon. Between 2008 and 2009 Zobrist averaged one home run every 17.6 at-bats. If he can find that pace over the remainder of the season, he could still hit over 20 home runs.

Whether that happens or not is truly anyone’s guess, but the potential is still there.

I’d hang in there if I were a Zobrist owner.