Like Don Johnson, Joe Maddon will be looking for the heartbeat when he makes out lineup cards for the upcoming NLDS matchup. That isn’t saying he’s going to cast the metrics aside completely, but he’ll definitely be weighing the human element along with the data spat out by his geeks and their algorithms.
Which means we’ll definitely be seeing plenty of Ben Zobrist.
“He’s really trending in the right direction,” Maddon said Tuesday of his longtime charge. “He wanted to play nine innings the other day in a game that nobody else wanted to. He’s bouncing around. He feels really good. He’s riding his bike to Little League games.”
To call this a frustrating season for Zobrist would be an understatement, as the versatile veteran has battled through myriad maladies indicative of his increased age. With a stiff neck, stiff back, and bum wrist hampering him more or less from the start of spring training, Zobrist looked every bit of his 36 years and then some.
He did actually look like a much younger version of himself in May, hitting to a .361 wOBA and 121 wRC+ that made Javy Baez expendable in some folks’ eyes and could have prevented Ian Happ from blossoming had said performance kept up. Okay, the Javy part may be a bit extreme, but there’s no doubt Zo producing above his career-average numbers would have changed things up for his younger teammates.
Then the bearded bicycle enthusiast swung awkwardly at an Alex Wood offering in the Cubs’ May 26 loss to the Dodgers and everything changed. He tweaked his left wrist, effectively sapping his power and eliminating any quickness in his right-handed swing. Zobrist had only posted a .729 OPS and 81 wRC+ through May 25 as a righty, well below career marks of .820 and 127, but the bottom fell out after the injury.
Between May 26 and July 30, Zobrist put up an abominable .371 OPS and -5 wRC+ that rendered him useless against southpaws. The numbers rebounded slightly in August, when he put up a .619 OPS and 69 wRC+ that were much nicer than in previous months. However, September saw a return to the cellar with marks of .367 and -7, respectively. Woof.
The good news for the Cubs is that three of the Nats’ starters are right-handed, allowing Zobrist to bat from the left side. Though it’s nothing to write home about, his .766 OPS and 100 wRC+ in the second half are actually above league-average marks. He seemed pretty spry in those last few games and having most of the week off ahead of the NLDS should help as well.
“I actually feel the best I’ve felt all year right now,” Zobrist told reporters Tuesday. “About Game 156, I felt like I finally got my legs under me. Hopefully, it’s good timing, but I wish it would’ve happened a little bit earlier.”
Even if we don’t get a repeat of the heroics that earned him the World Series MVP last season, Zobrist is a professional hitter who is still capable of making an impact. Or maybe that’s just me channeling Maddon’s affinity for the guy and I’m kidding myself. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.