It is rumored that Dayton Moore has been spotted through the windows at Kauffman Stadium screaming, "ALL IN! ALL IN! ALL IN!" for the past few days. Though the Royals lead the AL, Moore felt it prudent to sacrifice some of the long term to gain more in the short term. The first short-term move was acquiring Johnny Cueto. The second short-term move was yesterday's acquisition of Ben Zobrist, the switch-hitting Swiss Army Player Extraordinaire. Both are big acquisitions signaling GOING FOR IT and being ALL IN. Let's get to know the more recent acquisition.
I'll be focusing on Zobrist the player. For a more detailed discussion on how Zobrist affects the Royals' playoff chances and how Zobrist helps position the Royals against other AL contenders, read this article from Loose Seal.
Ben Zobrist is a walker
Over his career, Zobrist has a 12.1 percent walk rate. This year, Zobrist has a 12.2 percent walk rate. Only Alex Gordon can best that walk rate, but he is injured now and not here. Zobrist immediately becomes the player with the best plate discipline. Again, only Alex Gordon can come even close to matching Zobrist's miniscule rate of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone.
Thankfully, Zobrist's propensity to walk does NOT come with an increased strikeout rate. In fact, Zobrist is accomplishing two notable feats this year. He is striking out far less than his career value (9.6% now vs. 15.3% career), and he is actually striking out less than he walks. Though Zobrist's plate discipline runs contrary to the typical Royals player, his contact skills place him directly within the Royals philosophy of putting the ball in play. Striking out less than he walks is not likely to last, however. By looking at 14-game moving averages, Zobrist is showing more normal rates recently.
There is still some variation there, but we should expect Zobrist's strikeout rate to go up just a bit and his walk rate to go down very slightly. That's ok; the baseline from which he is working is excellent, and he can give up a little here without much effect.
Ben Zobrist has a little bit of power
As a super utility guy, you don't expect Zobrist to have much power. He has some, though. For his career, he has a .166 ISO. He topped 20 home runs in three seasons with the Rays, whose home park is a little tough in which to hit dingers. Zobrist is now 34, so his days of 20+ homers are probably gone. However, Zobrist still has a .179 ISO this year, which is much higher than 2014 or 2013. For reference, Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez each have a .178 ISO, so Zobrist has shown power roughly equal to those two. It's more doubles power, but the gaps at Kauffman should treat him well.
Now, that .179 ISO will probably come down. Looking again at a 14-game moving average, Zobrist has spent more time below .179 than above it. However, this is still fluctuating, and Zobrist spent some time on the DL for an injury. Zobrist has had a very slightly higher ISO since returning from the injury (.184).
Ben Zobrist plays decently everywhere
It's difficult to analyze Zobrist's defensive stats on FanGraphs. It's not because things are hard to notice; it's hard to make sense of the table of numbers since he has played so many positions. Over his career, Zobrist has logged innings at every position on the diamond except catcher (and maybe pitcher, but I'm not sure there).
In 2015, Zobrist has played at second base, in left field, and in right field. At second base, Zobrist doesn't rate well this year but has rated well there in years past (by DRS and UZR). He'll be able to make the plays a second baseman should be able to make there. In left field, it's a similar story. Zobrist doesn't rate well there this year by DRS and UZR, but he has rated well there in the past. He's missed some "routine" plays (as defined by Inside Edge) in left field. At a 94.3 percent conversion rate for the routine plays, Zobrist falls below the MLB average of 99.2 percent.
We're used to seeing Alex Gordon in left field cast spells on baseballs to make them fall into his glove. Zobrist is not that kind of wizard. There will be a decrease in defensive quality when Zobrist mans left field, but it could be worse. Zobrist will likely be at least Infante's equal at second base. Zobrist has barely played in right field this year, so let's not every worry about it.
Ben Zobrist can bring a lot of value...or a little
Zobrist is projected for 1.3 fWAR (average of ZiPS and Steamer) over the rest of the season. It's not entirely clear to me what position is being used to calculate that value, but for the sake of discussion let's assume position doesn't matter.
There are multiple ways the Royals can use Zobrist. He can straight-up replace Omar Infante for the rest of the season. Dayton Moore has said that Zobrist will play the outfield until Gordon returns, but let's look at this option anyway. Infante is projected for about 0.3 fWAR for the rest of the season. That's assuming Infante rebounds; at this point, it hardly looks like Infante will rebound. It's entirely possible that Infante contributes negative value for the rest of the season. By replacing Infante with Zobrist, the Royals could gain at least a win and as many as two wins.
The other option, which is kind of the other extreme, is that Zobrist plays the outfield for the rest of the year. Zobrist plays left field until Gordon returns, after which he'll play right field and spell Lorenzo Cain every so often in center. The alternative here is basically a Jarrod Dyson/Paulo Orlando platoon. A platoon of those two players would probably be worth around 0.7 fWAR for the rest of the season. The value Zobrist brings in this scenario is cut in half compared to the second base scenario.
The most likely scenario is that Zobrist plays the outfield until Gordon returns, after which Ned Yost will shift Zobrist around to spell players at each position. Zobrist will find himself in the lineup every day, but he won't be replacing the worst players each day. This is a middle ground that probably puts Zobrist's value to the Royals at around a win, maybe less depending on how often he replaces Infante.
Overall, a healthy Zobrist is an excellent player. Since returning from injury, he has hit .276/.367/.459 for a 134 wRC+. That's about the same level of offense as Eric Hosmer and Gordon himself. Zobrist can cover pretty much any position in the event of an injury. Not only is Zobrist top-notch depth, but he is a top-notch starter. The Royals just need to get him in the lineup every day in the right place.