Positional Versatility and the Zobrist Fallacy

Ben Zobrist is the reason why WAR is important (via Keith Allison).

Ben Zobrist is the reason why WAR is important (via Keith Allison).

Sometimes we’re taught to value the wrong things. Usually this happens because, at some point prior, our elders didn’t know any better. An idea gets ingrained into our culture and passed down from generation to generation without ever really being questioned. Certain contrarians and rabble rousers try to shake things up, but they’re almost always shouted down.

There is this thing—some fact or idea—that we know to be true, and it leads to all sorts of other conclusions about related matters. This is why RBI and wins remain so popular in baseball. There was a time when they were the best stats we had, and changing your values when new information comes around is a challenge for many people. We sometimes call this inertial reasoning.

But this isn’t about RBI or wins. I’ll spare you that diatribe. This is about something else entirely. It’s about the way our conception of what a player ought to be leads us to look down upon one of the most unique and impressive players in baseball.

This is a story about Ben Zobrist and what it means to be a great player.


The well-educated but unobsessed baseball fan likely knows two things about Zobrist. First, he plays a lot of different positions for the Rays. Second, people like me won’t shut up about how Zobrist is so underrated.

That’s the book on Zobrist. He’s a super-utility guy whom a small army of baseball nerds seem to think is the second coming of Stan Musial. You might even been aware of the fact that Wins Above Replacement (WAR) seems to adore Zobrist. Lots of WAR skeptics like to point to that and use it as an example of WAR’s imperfections, its flaws.

WAR doesn’t work because it says Ben Zobrist is about as good as Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano. That’s the message. This is something that just cannot be so. WAR is new. It requires a mix of math and subjectivity, and you can’t calculate it with two swipes on a keyboard. So when it tells you something you don’t believe, you dismiss it. Mock it. Forget it.

This formula says Ben Zobrist is one of the five best players in baseball. What a joke.


Let’s start at the end, though. WAR loves Zobrist. From 2009 to 2012, Zobrist ranked second to Cabrera with 24.3 WAR to Cabrera’s 24.9. From 2009 to 2013, Zobrist trailed only Cabrera and teammate Evan Longoria. He became a full-time player in 2009 and since then, WAR says he’s been the second-most valuable position player in the entire sport.

Zobrist has a .270 batting average during that time and fewer than 100 home runs. He’s nowhere near Cabrera’s equal at the plate, but his baserunning and defense are superior. That’s typically the case with WAR. Most basic analysis is about hitting and gives lip service to the rest of the game. We went over this again and against both times we fought over Mike Trout and Cabrera.

But it’s more than that for Zobrist, because he doesn’t have a loud defensive game. He’s not making amazing plays in center or making throws like Andrelton Simmons. Zobrist plays a bunch of positions and plays them well. No one really argues that he’s a poor defender, but he’s not considered outstanding, either.

It’s not so much that defense outweighs hitting in this example. It’s that there’s a perception that a guy who plays all over the diamond cannot possibly be good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as the game’s premier slugger.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Even the skeptic can watch Ozzie Smith play defense and realize that it’s possible for him to make up for his weaker bat. But the skeptic can’t see a guy who doesn’t even have a permanent position as being capable of providing that type of value.

Don’t blame the skeptic here. He’s a product of his culture and of the language he was taught.


One certainly could make the case that Zobrist is underrated simply because he’s a well-rounded player without one defining tool. That’s probably true to some extent, but I’d contend that Zobrist is primarily underrated relative to other such players because of his most impressive skill.

Ben Zobrist can play average or better defense at every position—with the possible exception of catcher—and Joe Maddon makes the most of that wonderful skill. During his career, Zobrist has played more than 4,000 innings at second base, more than 1,700 frames at shortstop, over 2,000 innings in right field, and about 500 innings apiece among left field, center field, first base, and third base.

Zobrist isn’t underrated because he’s a good-at-everything, great-at-nothing player. Zobrist is underrated because pretty much every player in baseball who is asked to play four or five positions during the course of a season qualifies as a backup.

Just look at this list of players who played 50 or more innings at three different positions in 2013:

Players Who Played 3+ Positions, 2013 (Min. 50 Innings)
Player WAR Played LF/CF/RF Only
Ben Zobrist 5.4
Chris Denorfia 3.9 X
Bryce Harper 3.8 X
Andre Ethier 2.9 X
Allen Craig 2.5
Mark Trumbo 2.5
Martin Prado 2.4
Josh Hamilton 2.0 X
Brandon Moss 1.9
Daniel Nava 1.8
Nick Punto 1.8
Curtis Granderson 1.4 X
Kelly Johnson 1.2
Rajai Davis 1.2 X
Michael Saunders 1.2 X
Ichiro Suzuki 1.1 X
Shane Robinson 0.9 X
Jordan Schafer 0.9 X
Charlie Blackmon 0.8 X
Eric Young 0.7 X
Ed Lucas 0.7
Jeff Bianchi 0.7
Emilio Bonifacio 0.6
Dustin Ackley 0.6
Joaquin Arias 0.6
Willie Bloomquist 0.5
Chris Young 0.5 X
Justin Turner 0.5
Jeff Baker 0.4
Clete Thomas 0.4 X
Ramiro Pena 0.4
Kyle Blanks 0.3
Mike Aviles 0.3
Ramon Santiago 0.2
Freddy Galvis 0.1
Wilkin Ramirez 0.1 X
Darin Ruf 0.1
Mark DeRosa 0.1
Don Kelly 0.0
Logan Forsythe 0.0
Alex Presley -0.1 X
Trevor Crowe -0.1 X
Logan Schafer -0.1 X
Collin Cowgill -0.2 X
Sam Fuld -0.3 X
Daniel Descalso -0.3
Chris Coghlan -0.5 X
Roger Bernadina -0.6 X
Alexi Amarista -0.8
Skip Schumaker -1.0
Jerry Hairston -1.3
Michael Morse -1.5
Jeff Keppinger -1.5
Maicer Izturis -2.2

It’s Zobrist and mostly a bunch of guys you might find on the waiver wire. There are a few other good players in there, but almost every player who is asked to move around the diamond is something less than a solid regular, and this list counts left field and right field as different positions.

Of the 54 players on this list, 22 of them only played the three different outfield spots, and you have to get down to Martin Prado at 2.4 WAR before you find a player whom you might consider a “utility” guy. The average WAR of the group, including Zobrist, is 0.7.

The fact that Zobrist moves around must mean he isn’t good enough to hold down one position, right?


This belief is what I call the “Zobrist Fallacy.” It’s perfectly understandable, as an automatic response, to see a player rotating around the field during the course of the season and assume he’s the team’s 10th man. He’s the best substitute, so he plays whatever position is open due to injuries or days off. This is how players like Don Kelly make their living.

Our conception of a utility player is someone who is good enough defensively to handle multiple positions but not good enough offensively to start at any of them. They’re useful because you can usually avoid carrying extra bench players for emergencies and can replace them with guys who are valuable pinch hitters or platoon bats.

Plenty of major leaguers fit this description. They’re guys you like having around, and their role calls on them to play a variety of positions over the course of a season. They’re baseball duct tape. But we get lost with players like Zobrist because he is capable of that kind of versatility while also featuring a well-above-average bat. He breaks the mold a little.

In baseball, defensive flexibility is something you learn when your bat won’t keep you in the lineup. It’s a matter of survival for many players rather than true cause and effect. Guys who can play multiple positions aren’t inherently bad, but most of them learn to play multiple positions because it’s the only way they can be good enough.

Which bring us to Zobrist. Zobrist’s bat is good enough to start anywhere. His 126 wRC+ since 2009 would be well above average anywhere on the diamond. The baseball instruction manual tells us to put players at the best defensive position they can handle if their bats are good enough to be in the lineup at all. If Miguel Cabrera could play shortstop well, he’d be a shortstop.

From a value perspective, this makes sense in the abstract. This isn’t one of those silly baseball traditions that won’t die. You want a player to provide as much value as possible and he will do so by playing his innings at the most difficult possible defensive position. Anyone who doesn’t do that isn’t maximizing his value.

The immediate realization, however, is that teams have to fill out an entire lineup, so a team with Troy Tulowitzki and Andrelton Simmons couldn’t have two players at short. One would move to third or second or center field. You wouldn’t be maximizing Tulowitzki’s value if you put him at third, but he could handle third just fine, and it would help the team overall.

So people don’t knock Zobrist simply because he doesn’t play shortstop when the Rays have a better defensive shortstop on the roster. They knock him because it appears as if the team has a better shortstop, second baseman, and right fielder on the roster, and Zobrist is just finding his way into the lineup by plugging whichever hole is open that day. And that’s simply not true.

Zobrist is one of the Rays’ stars. Maddon builds the lineup around him. Zobrist is a utility player because he’s special, not because he needs to do it to survive. If you take the time to really think about it, you know that Zobrist isn’t the Rays 10th-best player. But the fact that you associate his most recognizable skill with guys who can barely stay above replacement level leads you to psychologically undervalue him when comparing him to the game’s best players.

Only a couple of players have been more productive major league players during the last six seasons, but if you tell people Zobrist is a star and WAR thinks he’s great, there’s pushback.

And that pushback is all in our heads. If you think about it dispassionately, you know that a player with a 126 wRC+ who plays good defense and gets 600 or more plate appearances is crazy valuable whether he plays right field or shortstop. There’s a difference between those two, maybe around a win, but both are All-Star type players or better. But when we see it with our own eyes, it’s tough to break the well-ingrained conditioning. Great players don’t move around the diamond. They just don’t.


There’s a very human origin and baseball origin to this way of thinking. From a simple perspective, it’s hard to switch between multiple positions and play them well. We’re pretty confident as analysts that a good shortstop could become a good outfielder, but asking a young player to learn both at the major league level and switch between the two at a moment’s notice is hard. The outfield isn’t harder than shortstop, but it’s absolutely a challenge no matter how talented the player may be. It takes time to master a position.

It makes sense that you wouldn’t want to bring a talented hitter up and bounce him around the diamond. It would take his energy away from learning to hit a big-league slider, and it might make him worse at both positions. In other words, the actual development of versatility is challenging. That’s problem one.

Problem two is a product of problem one. In baseball, we develop and scout talent without much concern for need at the major league level. If you have to pick a position for a player, you pick it when he’s first coming up, and you move him off the position when he proves he can’t handle it or the team runs into a road block in the big leagues. Since it’s difficult to play multiple positions, you find positions for your top prospects to succeed, and you develop them there.

Essentially, you scout players based on the most difficult position they can handle. If you’re watching a 20-year-old kid at Double-A with the potential to hit 30 home runs with some decent on-base skill, you care about getting him to the big leagues. If he can play third, he’ll play third. If he can’t play third, he’ll learn left. His bat is getting him to the show, and his glove is just keeping him from slowing that down.

On the other side, if you’re watching a superlative defender, you’re not going to move him off the position and try others, because his presence at that position is why you want hiem at all. Simmons didn’t get to Atlanta because he was setting the world on fire at the plate. He got there because of the runs he can save on defense.

You only shift to honing the utility craft when either of those avenues fail. If you aren’t good enough to hit in the big leagues, you might be good enough to fill a bench role, but that requires that you can cover a few positions. Or if your bat is okay, but your defense isn’t good enough for you to start at a premium defensive position, you might find yourself unable to break in as a starter at an offense-first position.

At the development stage, you become a utility player when becoming a starter fails. In talking with a few people who cover the player development world, that’s the message that comes through. Utility players, or guys who play all over the diamond, do so because they didn’t project as someone who could play every day at the MLB level.


When I asked our Marc Hulet what he means when he uses the term “utility player” in a scouting report, he said that it means the player’s “offensive skills project as replacement level or worse, but that they’re athletic enough to handle multiple positions.”

Another FanGraphs and Hardball Times contributor, Nathaniel Stoltz, told me that utility players “have interesting skills, and they don’t have a fatal flaw that would leave them totally helpless in the bigs, but they don’t fall neatly into any position on the field in terms of their skill set. One prerequisite for a utility tag, of course, is the player’s ability (or projected ability) to man several positions. In most instances, that includes at least one up-the-middle spot (seems like [four-corner] types are pretty rare nowadays).”

Stoltz went on to say that a utility guy is “either deficient enough on one side of the ball to give you pause running him out there every day, or he’s just fairly bland all-around and, therefore, doesn’t seem like the sort of guy worth going out of your way to write into the lineup card regularly.”

Mark Anderson, who writes for Baseball Prospectus and TigsTown, puts it like this: “Utility players have an MLB tool that holds them at the level, or the collection of their tools warrants more than an org player projection…in Tigers terms, think Ramon Santiago’s peak (glove as the carrying tool) or Shane Halter (never embarrassed himself in any capacity at his peak), respectively.”

Built into all of these characterizations is the idea that utility players are good enough to be useful members of a 25-man roster but not good enough that you would want them to start for your team. This won’t come as a shock to anyone, but seeing their descriptions is important. When you call someone a utility player, or project they have a utility future, you’re acknowledging a lack of potential.

There are many players in professional baseball who fit this description. They’re common, and we’re very aware of their existence. Just go back up and look at that list. We have a good grasp on what it means to be a utility player. Given that there are countless examples, we end up developing a very fixed relationship between players who play multiple positions and players who aren’t great by major league standards. It’s almost a perfect relationship, truth be told.

If you take the time to really sit down and think, you know this isn’t a guarantee. But as your subtle opinions develop and the lack of counterexamples emerge, your brain accepts this conventional wisdom.


Which brings us back to Zobrist. Over the last six years, he ranks second in WAR, and even if you use WAR as a general guide, he’s easily been one of the ten best position players in the game during that time. He has a well above-average bat. He runs the bases very well. He’s an extremely valuable defender. Zobrist isn’t just a good player who stands above other players who play multiple positions; he stands above just about everyone.

Zobrist is versatile. He’s not a utility player by the common meaning of the word. He has everything you need to be a major league starter at any position and the added ability to handle many positions at a moment’s notice.

Sixty qualified players have posted a 120 wRC+ or better since 2009. Zobrist ranks seventh in BsR (base running runs) among them and first in DEF (fielding and positional runs). Think Chase Utley and Evan Longoria as comparables.

Ben Zobrist Comparables
Name PA wRC+ Bsr Off Def WAR
Ben Zobrist 3869 126 16.3 133.7 70.1 34.7
Evan Longoria 3533 131 6.8 135.0 67.4 33.4
Chase Utley 3133 123 26.5 113.0 57.1 27.9

Utley and Longoria are underrated in their own right for providing a lot of value in aspects of the game other than at the plate, but imagine taking one of those players and being able to use him at every position.

Which leads us to one final question: Why is versatility so valuable? If we put Zobrist at shortstop or second base and let him play, he’d still be plenty valuable. Baseball dorks would still consider him one of the best dozen players over the last few seasons. Right? Yes, but it’s more than that.

Zobrist’s versatility makes the Rays better because he gives them the option to run any number of rotating platoons across multiple positions. He’s a switch hitter who can play basically every position. The Rays can gather their best nine hitters for any given matchup, and the fact that they have Zobrist and his versatility allows them to be less concerned about needing the other eight to cover a specific set of positions.

It’s also a huge benefit when dealing with injuries. The Rays almost always can replace an injured player with their next-best player because Zobrist can shift positions to accommodate. He’s the best insurance policy money can buy.


I’ve always had a fascination with versatility in baseball. When you’re in little league, you’re either the kid who wants to play shortstop or you’re the kid who tells the coach you’ll play anywhere. I was the latter. There aren’t really any other players like Zobrist right now, or at least any players who have done what he does for an extended period of time.

Chone Figgins comes to mind, but he had only two high-quality offensive seasons. In 2013, Prado is about the closest thing we have, and he’s an average major league rather than a down-ballot MVP.

Our conception of utility players leads us to relay a utility tag onto players who play all over the diamond. As a result, we think less of those guys who play multiple positions than we probably should, even if they’re much better than a 25th man. Most of the time, that doesn’t have serious consequences. In Zobrist’s case, though, it leads us to miss a star and question a method of player evaluation (WAR), because it doesn’t feel like Zobrist should be so well regarded.

Versatility should be celebrated. It’s a valuable skill we don’t properly appreciate because the number of players who use versatility to move from good to great is tiny compared to the number of players who use it to move from career minor leaguer to bench player.

Looking down on versatile players is like looking down on buffets just because buffets typically don’t offer high-quality food. But buffets could offer high quality good. Some rare ones do. That’s Ben Zobrist. He has all of the skills you need to succeed at any major league position and the ability to play almost any of them.

Zobrist isn’t the reason WAR is flawed; he’s the reason it’s important. If not for the existence WAR, even more people would undervalue one of the best players of the last several years. Zobrist would be a great player if he were anchored to second base, but the fact that he’s not makes him even more valuable to the Rays despite the fact that though our brains have been programmed to think otherwise.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.
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Aaron (UK)
9 years ago

Perhaps ironically, his versatility is not itself rewarded in the WAR framework. How much extra credit should he get for “improving” his team-mates by allowing them to optimise their starts / off-days?

9 years ago
Reply to  Aaron (UK)

I should say Zobrist deserves neither credit nor blame. Particularly since the days when Zobrist doesn’t start at second base, below-replacement-level Logan Forsythe is in his place. How does that make the Rays a better team?

Zobrist should be playing every day at second base.

Jon L.
9 years ago
Reply to  Aaron (UK)

Yes, and this is what’s weird about the article. The main points seem to be Ben Zobrist can play average or better defense at every position, and thank goodness WAR helps us appreciate how good he is. But while those are both true, perhaps WAR’s biggest failing is that it gives no credit for versatility, even though versatility clearly provides value.

9 years ago
Reply to  Aaron (UK)

It really needs to be covered by the positional adjustment: positional adjustment is meant to capture the value of positional scarcity. i.e. by playing a scarce position, you add value to your team because you make it easier for your manager and GM to fill the remaining positions. Same thing with versatility: by being able to play multiple positions, you make it easier on your manager and GM to the fill the rest of the lineup.

So someone who can only play Catcher is more valuable than somebody who can only play CF (using fangraphs positional adjustments), but a person who can play both is more valuable than either. This principle applies with all positions but is difficult to quantify. A guy who can only play 3B is more valuable than a guy who can only play 1B, and a guy who can play both is more valuable than either. But is a guy who can play 1B and 3B more valuable than a guy who can only play SS? Unlikely, but that’s impossible to say without assigning a value for versatility.

In principle, versatility is more valuable when the positions played are less interchangeable and more scarce. A centerfielder who can also play 2B is more valuable than a CF who can also play RF, (1) because 3B is scarcer than RF, and (2) because all CF can easily play RF while it’s rarer for a CF to be able to play 3B. Interchangeability likely finds itself in clusters- a CF can easily play the corners and a RF can easily play LF; a SS can reasonably play 2B and 3B, though 2B and 3B can’t necessarily play each other; Catcher stands alone; and most everybody can play LF and especially 1B

That said the value of versatility diminishes rapidly once the scarcest and least interchangeable positions are covered – i.e. all the clusters are covered: a Catcher who can play SS and CF has pretty much maxed their versatility bonus, extra versatility after that is pretty superfluous.

Ryan P. Morrison
9 years ago

Hey Neil — great work on a topic of interest to our army of baseball nerds!

I’d argue there are additional benefits to versatility, or at least that we can take the first of your two and split it up in a few discrete ways. Covering for injury (the second) is definitely an important one.

Back to the first — rotating platoons. In addition to widening the list of potential 2-player platoons (say, one involving a LH and a RH hitter at SS and 2B, instead of only being able to make a productive platoon if they both played the same position), as you note, there are all manner of configurations that can make for a better lineup. But this can also be a factor mid-game (especially in the National League).

Two additional benefits. One, making player acquisition easier; if there are a limited number of free agents and trade targets, and some are more valuable relative to their cost than others, than it can help to have twice as many (or three times as many!) options to choose from. I think this is a discrete benefit, and one that won’t show up in the stat line.

The second is probably the most important of all: limiting plate appearances to true backups, the players who have some kind of valuable skill (probably defensive), but not enough hitting skill to be a starter — as you described very thoroughly. One problem is that unless you’re a slugging first baseman, your manager is likely to think you need a rest every once and a while. Who plays in that player’s absence? True backups or utility guys can get 200+ PA on some rosters. What if you could replace all of those PA? What if you could replace all the backups’ PA with Ben Zobrist, or with Sean Rodriguez but only if Rodriguez has a favorable matchup, etc.?

Just wanted to add a couple of notes, but all they do is aid the premise. Not only is Zobrist very valuable despite his moving around, but he’s more valuable because of it, and even more valuable than WAR would tell us (since the bonus value from versatility either doesn’t show up in WAR or shows up in other players’ WAR). I think more teams would do well to embrace these alternative time shares in parts of the field other than the OF.

9 years ago

Outstanding comment!

Jim S.
9 years ago

As a TB fan, I agree with everything you say — except that I do not believe Zobrist is “average or better at every position.” If Jeter is a 1 and Simmons is a 10 at shortstop, Zobrist is a 2 or a 3. He came up as a shortstop, but didn’t stay there very long.

Matthew Murphy
9 years ago
Reply to  Jim S.

Between 2006 and 2014, 68 major leaguers have played at least 1500 innings at shortstop. In terms of UZR/150, Zobrist ranks 42/68 at -2.2, so not quite average, but pretty close. And while the year-to-year samples are fairly small at short, his defense there has actually been better the past few years than it was earlier in his career. (He ranks 48/68 in DRS at -11.)
This puts him in the same ballpark as guys like Ian Desmond and Stephen Drew. Maybe not quite average, but close enough that he could probably start there regularly without being a burden on the defense.

9 years ago

Didn’t a Florida NBA team recently build its success on its best player’s ability to be above average at a variety of positions and roles?

Zobrist’s best comp is probably Tony Phillips, who is also remembered as “utility” guy even though he was 12th in the majors in games played from 1989-1994. Phillips was a converted SS who was an above average defensive 2B (his most frequent position) and LF (his second most frequent position), as well as a plus offensive player.

Yet in a different light, Bobby Abreu comes to mind. Zobrist is above average across the board, yet doesn’t have a single trademark skill that shines as elite. A recent Fangraphs Community article discussed player percentiles for six basic WAR components, and Zobrist’s weakest component was BABIP, where he was at the 54th percentile. Zobrist and David Wright were the ONLY two major leaguers to be above average in all six components over 2011-2014:



So, Zobrist is a meld of two of the most underrated players of the past quarter century.

Spa City
9 years ago

Junior Gilliam and Tony Philips were Ben Zobrist before Ben Zobrist was Ben Zobrist.

9 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

How cool to see Tony Phillips mentioned! Truly the Ben Zobrist of his era. 1980’s Bill James readers were well-aware of Tony Phillips but he was otherwise underappreciated, like Zobrist.

9 years ago
Reply to  jas

say what you want but he was most certainly NOT unnoticed or unappreciated by me. Tony Phillips was awesome, and as a Tigers fan I loved him while he was there. Tony the Tiger was GRRRRREAT!. He came to play EVERY day, nothing but a full effort and that is all you can ask.

Jim Hickman
9 years ago
Reply to  Spa City

Gil McDougald comes to mind as another player of this ilk.

9 years ago

For 2014, Josh Harrison and his 4.8 WAR (so far) would love to join the list.

But Zobrist… it’s hard for this Pirates fan to imagine five straight years of someone as great as Harrison has been this year.

Sean C
9 years ago
Reply to  Robbie314

Another reason to doubt Harrison as a Zobrist-type player long-term is that the Pirates will most likely see if he can stick as an everyday third baseman. They have a dearth of 3B talent in the organization. If Polanco/Lambo/some FA solidifies RF, I don’t see Harrison playing a bunch of different positions next year unless somebody gets hurt. He seems to be escaping the super-utility role. It’s probably for the best, as he’s a very good defensive 3B, but average everywhere else. The ability to be average in multiple spots is very valuable, but in Harrison’s case, he’ll likely produce more value if he plays exclusively at his best defensive position. My guess is if he played third all year, he’d be more valuable than McCutchen in terms of bWAR this year – he’s only 0.4 behind as it stands.

9 years ago

Devils advocate viewpoint: Zobrist’s “extra” value from versatility has more to do with Maddon than with Zobrist himself.

There are probably more than a few decent hitting middle infielders who would be able to move around the diamond if asked. Not to dismiss Zobrist’s success in doing so, but it is more a matter of opportunity than unique skillset.

9 years ago

Read here: Joe Maddon has a 126 wRC+!!!!!

9 years ago

Isn’t this pretty much the same line of reasoning that led Dave Cameron to proclaim the Justin Upton trade a “win-win?”

Adee Feinstein
9 years ago

Thanks for a great write-up. More than anything previously stated, Ben is the ultimate team player, the living embodiment of “The Rays’ Way”. Much of his value is a direct result of Joe Maddon’s innovations. I doubt that the article would have been written if Lou Pinella would have still been in charge. We’ll be very sorry to see him go, but that. too, is “The Rays’ Way”…

9 years ago

Zobrist also deserves credit simply for being willing to switch positions daily. He certainly has proven to be good enough to push/demand to play at one position if he wanted, and it seems to be commonplace (or atleast not unusual) for players to want the stability of playing a certain position day in and day out (particularly the most valuable one – think Hanley Ramirez).

The Stranger
9 years ago

I wonder if you could quantify some of the value of versatility. I think you could at least get a very rough estimate if you looked at the Rays’ game-by-game lineups. Assume Zobrist’s “natural” position is second base – every game he starts at second, he provides no versatility value. Then, for each game he starts in a position other than second, make an educated guess as to what he lineup might have been if Zobrist had just stayed at second. Compare the expected value of those lineups, and the difference is your versatility value (with huge error bars, of course).

Poor Man's Rick Reed
9 years ago

While not a real measure of hitting ability, I think it’s interesting to know the general idea of what his managers have thought of his offense, regardless of position played. Zobrist has occupied one of the top 5 spots in the order in just over 85% of his career plate appearances. Here’s a quick look at his PA totals by lineup spot:

1st – 491
2nd – 1204
3rd – 910
4th – 566
5th – 594
6th – 235
7th – 75
8th – 92
9th – 238

9 years ago

Since we’re talking about perceptions here more than real bodies of work: one of the downsides of having no fixed position is that it makes it harder to get voted into the allstar game by fans. Zobrist has been to two, but I wonder if he’d have played in a couple more if he’d made a name for himself at a particular position. While it’s true that he’d have a hard time getting more votes than, say, Cano at 2B or Trout in LF, he doesn’t even show up on the ballot at some of those positions. So I wonder if some of the psychological pushback comes from that: how good could he possibly be if he’s not even on the ballot for the allstar game?

Spa City
9 years ago

Derek Jeter would have been more valuable in a Zobrist role. No reason to think he could not have handled 2B and corner OF while occasionally filling in at SS. But the Jeter Deification process started early and never slowed, so they kept planting him at short until he grew roots.

9 years ago

Not that I disagree with the results, but when you take a player who plays full time and compare him with players who are mostly not playing full time, he will look superior to most of them, particularly those who really are utility players.

To make the playing field more level, as I do not think there is a perfect solution, you could perhaps calculate the WAR per 500 PA and compare them. Obviously, that over values defensive players who do not get many ABs, but I think it would make a better comparison than the table above.

Sandy Kazmir
9 years ago

Couldn’t disagree more. A part-time player is being used as close to efficiently as possible. They’re seeing all the matchups that favor them and not seeing action against all of the worst matchups. A true, everyday player is seeing all the good matchups, but also all the really tough ones. How many lefties get a day off against Sale or Price? How many righties take a seat when Felix comes to town? Extrapolating out a player that only saw his most opportune matchups misrepresents the value of that player.

I was going to post this elsewhere in the thread, but this is as good a place as any. Many good players excel at some things while being bad in other areas. The slugging first basemen probably strikes out a bunch and clogs the bases. The waterbug SS probably doesn’t contribute much power. Well sir, Zobrist doesn’t really have those negatives that detract from the things that he does at an average level and those that he does at a well above average level. For instance, here’s his raw statistic, Z-Score, rank, and percentile for a number of important offensive statistics (since it seems that his offense is the most overlooked even if his defense, and especially baserunning, are his most underappreciated attributes) for 2014:

BB% 12.0%/0.7/68/89%
K% 13.7%/0.5/98/85%
ISO .125/-0.2/278/56%
BABIP .304/0.0/255/60%
Average .272/0.2/164/74%
OBP .358/0.4/70/89%
SLG .397/0.0/212/67%
wOBA .336/0.2/141/78%
wRC+ 120/0.3/103/84%
Baserunning 2.6/1.2/56/91%
Offense 15.4/1.3/51/92%
Defense 10.4/1.8/34/95%
WAR 4.9/2.1/19/97%

This is for the 635 non-pitcher seasons with players seeing multiple teams having both samples split out. Immediately evident is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, because he doesn’t not give anything back other than his ISO which is still a little better than average. Let’s do this exercise for 2009 – 14 where we find 1,161 non-pitchers:

BB% 12.9%/1.1/68/94%
K% 15.8%/0.3/281/76%
ISO .168/0.3/242/79%
BABIP .302/0.0/404/65%
Avg .270/0.1/232/80%
OBP .365/0.5/78/93%
SLG .438/0.2/180/84%
wOBA .352/0.4/104/91%
wRC+ 125/0.5/83/93%
BsR 16.7/2.2/41/96%
Offense 133.2/3.4/16/99%
Defense 69.5/3.3/8/99%
WAR 34.7/4.4/2/100%

Note that I have reversed the signs for K% to reflect reality. Here’s a guy that is in the 99th percentile for both offensive and defensive runs accrued since 2009. Now these are counting stats so guys that play every single day, year in, and year out, are going to be more heavily favored for those categories, but THAT’S THE POINT. He plays every day as one of the best players in baseball with little to no weakness.

Whichever team is looking to pay the cost is going to get a hell of a player this off-season as the Rays look to cash out prior to the last year of his deal. Oh and by the way he’ll play for $7.5M next year.

In the event that you want to play around with this stuff:

2014 Workbook can be downloaded here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/13ZTQYojGfNS7V4wNh13i42xiJRzoe-LtCbyxvNg_HxQ/edit?usp=sharing

2009 – 14 Workbook can be downloaded here:

Sandy Kazmir
9 years ago
Reply to  Sandy Kazmir

Thank you for not clearing this comment that I spent quite a bit of time on. Can’t think of any reason why this would not pass moderation, but thank you for whatever petty reason is allowing this to sit here while jackanapes above and below lob thoughtless comments left and right. Best of luck to your site, I won’t be linking or reading from now on.

Paul Swydanmember
9 years ago
Reply to  Sandy Kazmir


Thank you for your note. I didn’t realize the comment was even in moderation, but after reading your follow-up comment I went in and approved it. Thank you for taking the time to post such a thoughtful comment, and my since apologies for not seeing it in moderation right away. I’m guessing it landed there because you included links in it.

I will talk with our site stewards to see if there is flexibility with our comments to make sure these sorts of comments make it through in the future without needing to land in moderation. Again, please accept my apologies.



Yehoshua Friedman
9 years ago

As spokesman for the Grand Inquisitor of Baseball, I warn you that you are being investigated for the heinous heresy of Zobrism. Analysts who express a Zobrist perspective are a threat to the Hallowed Traditions and Sacred Cowhides of America’s National Pastime.

9 years ago

I hereby post these 95 theses on your door, Grand Inquisitor. I stand against the corrupt practices of America’s National Passtime, such as purchasing ascension to baseball immortality through such falsities as Wins and RBIs. Let the Zobristant Reformation begin!!!

9 years ago

Zobrist couldn’t carry Jose Oquendo’s jockstrap in a suitcase.

9 years ago

Didn’t it used to be that back in the Negro Leagues, there were all sorts of players like this? As in good every day regulars who would move around from position to position? Nowadays, I feel like Zobrist, Prado, and maybe now Harrison fit that billing (I don’t count the 1B/corner OF sluggers as utility guys).

Personally, I’m surprised more players don’t take pride in being good at multiple positions. My best sport wasn’t baseball, but I was a guy who moved around between positions based on need and I was proud of that ability (and no, I wasn’t a sub). I realize part of it is only having to focus your efforts on one position, but I bet if the notion of super-utility man as valuable every day player got played up more as a great accomplishment, more guys would be willing to do it.

Herby Smith
9 years ago

In all seriousness, WAR needs to rectify this flaw in the system…it’s absurd to not reward a player for being able to play multiple positions (and for playing them). It’s truly a rare skill.

That said, my mind immediately went back to guys like Cesar Tovar. Shane Halter was mentioned earlier in the article, and he is one of three guys ever to play all 9 positions in a single game. Yeah, obviously those were “stunts,” but in all three cases, it simply showed off the skill and versatility of those players.

The other two players were Tovar and Bert Campaneris. Campy was obviously too valuable (as the best SS of his era) to move off his position, but Tovar was a legit Zobristian. His versatility was considered so eye-popping at the time, that one MVP voter gave Tovar a 1st-place vote in 1967.

(Uh…yeah. That was the year that Tovar’s team lost the pennant on the very last day of the season to Carl Yastrzemski’s Red Sox. Methinks that perhaps that voter got a little carried away with his admiration of Tovar’s Zobristian qualities. Yaz had a 12.4 WAR year, hit well over .500 in the last 2 weeks of an insanely tight pennant race, and won the Triple Crown. Kind of a good season).

Herby Smith
9 years ago

BTW, fWAR gives Yaz’s ’67 season “only” an 11.1 WAR. At BWAR, he’s at 12.4 for 1967 ( ie, the single greatest season by a position player not named Ruth in the history of baseball).

Bert Campaneris brings up an interesting point: obviously there are guys who are CAPABLE of doing what Zobrist does. I have no doubt that A-Rod, Ripken or any SS with a great arm could have played all over the diamond. But, those players are usually either too valuable to their team as a starting SS, or are simply superstars that you don’t want to mess with.

Two exceptions: Pete Rose and Stan Musial. Stan the Man probably couldn’t have handled the middle infield very well, but for one of the 10 greatest players of all-time, he sure moved around quite a bit; he played all 3 OF positions and 1B throughout almost every season. In his titanic 1948 season (11.1 fWAR), his skipper gave him about equal time at all three OF spots.

Rose was an All-Star 2nd baseman, the RFer, then LFer. When Sparky asked him to give 3rd base a try, it’s what elevated a 2nd-tier good team of that era (2 pennants, zero rings) into The Big Red Machine. (btw, does Rose get enough credit for this crazy move? At the time, he was a 34 year old vet, with 11 All-Star games and a recent MVP on his resume. At an age when 90% of HOF 3rd basemen “fall off a cliff,” he agreed to try the hot corner for the first TIME. Took cajones).

Final note: Campaneris has a much better HOF case than I’d imagined. (53.1 bWAR, though only 44 fWAR…these kinds of discrepancies drive anti-WAR folks nuts). Three rings. Absolutely every SS above him on the WAR list (except Trammel), and many below him, are already enshrined.