Additional Rest May Be Helping Ben Zobrist This Season
Ben Zobrist will not look back fondly on his 2017 season. The 2016 World Series MVP stumbled out of the gate, hitting .219 in April, before bouncing back with a .276 in May. Then he injured his left wrist on a check swing at the end of that month. He tried to play through the injury in June, but posted a .492 OPS and a wRC+ of 11 in 41 plate appearances.
Zobrist finally went on the disabled list in mid-June, which forced him to rest the wrist and resulted in some improvement in July. Still, the numbers were nothing like what the super-utility man was used to producing. The left wrist pain especially affected the switch-hitter’s natural right-handed swing, to the extent that he saw his at-bats against lefties limited through the end of the year.
When the year was over it was clear just what kind of impact the season-long injury had on the 36-year-old’s production. He finished with a .232 batting average, a .693 OPS, and a 82 wRC+, all of which were the worst Zobrist had posted since 2010. As 2018 dawned, it was fair to question whether the now 37-year-old had much left in the tank.
Instead, he has had a tremendous 2018 season. Through mid-August, he has a .309 batting average, an .856 OPS, and a 131 wRC+. That latter mark would be his highest since 2012, when he was 31 years old. Clearly a healthy wrist is helping things, but that doesn’t seem to be all of it.
So what was the aha moment for the kid from Eureka? It’s largely a function of Joe Maddon being careful with how he is using his veteran hitter. Zobrist has appeared in 98 of 119 games so far in 2018, starting just 73 of them. That’s actually right in line with the 130-game goal Zobrist set this past February, but it’s a drop from previous seasons.
He made 142 starts and appeared in 147 games in his first Cubs campaign two years ago. Even in his injury-plagued 2017 season, Zobrist appeared in 128 games and started 105. The obvious benefit of getting a day or two off each week is that he can better recover from the grind of the season. Maddon likes to rest all his players, so it should be expected that he would do even more to accommodate a veteran.
The increased time off also helps Zobrist get more favorable matchups at the plate. It’s no coincidence that his playing time against lefty starters has remained down even with the wrist at full health. Zo has generally fared a little better as a lefty batter, so making sure he sits against difficult left-handed starters is improving his overall numbers.
With a rested and seemingly healthy Zobrist in the lineup, Maddon can start leaning on him more down the stretch and into the playoffs. That could be even more important as younger players continue to struggle and Kris Bryant’s return to full health remains in question. The good news is that Zobrist is white-hot in the second half, sporting a .407 batting average with a 1.110 OPS since the break.
The Cubs are going to need their veteran slasher healthy and raking if they want to make an impact in October.