How Ben Zobrist is an Improvement Over Starlin Castro
From the time the trade went down, we’ve heard that Ben Zobrist makes the Cubs a better team than they were with Starlin Castro. Though it’s not hard to believe, it also felt to some like an axiom put forth with the expectation that we’d all buy into it. Some of Zorilla’s value, it held, drew from his history with Joe Maddon and the fact that he’s another on a roster filled with versatile players. And that intrinsic stuff is all well and good, but what about concrete terms?
While Zobrist has been deployed as a jack-of-all-trades throughout his career, he’ll be asked to master one in Chicago. Sure, he’ll still move around as situations dictate, but a majority of his time will be spent as Addison Russell’s double-play partner. With all due respect to right field, second base has probably been Zobrist’s best spot over the course of his 10-year career.
A direct comparison between Zobrist and Castro at second base is a bit difficult because neither totaled even 600 innings at the position in 2015 and defensive metrics are really squirrelly in small sample sizes. This, then, is where we lean on general familiarity with second, a spot where Zobrist has seen over 4,800 innings over the course of his career.
We can’t dismiss that versatility though, as he could easily fill in all over the field in the event of injury or unexpected poor performance from a teammate. Castro did not offer such insulation.
If you’re focused on batting average, you might think Castro’s the better hitter of this pair. But if you’re looking for stats that actually help the Cubs win, Zobrist’s superiority quickly becomes evident.
Zo gets on base far more often, hits for more power, and has significantly better performance as judged by the catch-all stats of weighted on-base average and weighted runs created plus. He also walks about two and a half times more often while striking out a bit less and has actually had less benefit from “luck,” as represented by BABIP.
This may seem like a pretty nebulous facet of the game, but Baseball Prospectus’s BRR (Baserunning Runs) provides some tangible insight. BRR “measures the number of runs contributed by a player’s advancement on the bases, above what would be expected.” In other words, things like going first to third on a single, stolen bases, advancing on sac flies, etc.
Conventional logic holds that a younger athlete will be faster, but convention holds little sway here. Castro has never been fast, and there’s a not-insignificant feeling among some scouts that he’s aging very poorly. To that end, he’s posted a -2.7 career BRR and has actually cost the Cubs 4.8 runs in the last two seasons (-2.6 and -2.2). Zobrist, on the other hand, has contributed 2.3 runs on the bases over the last decade.
Seems like a wash when viewed in the aggregate, but seeing how poorly Castro has run over the past two seasons makes this appear to be a clear mark in Zobrist’s favor.
So let’s review: Zobrist provides better defensive versatility, appreciably better offense, and slightly better baserunning. Oh, he’s also a super good dude in the clubhouse and the community (not that Castro wasn’t — though his various brushes with the authorities over the years can’t be dismissed out of hand either).
And since the first GIF might have been a bit premature…
Ugh, I went over: 561 in the main text.