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Zorilla's MVP chances

A note from a colleague about one of the American League's best players who's never been on a magazine cover: Zobrist

    Was discussing [Ben] Zobrist's MVP credibility with some coworkers, and one of them said, "I don't feel like he's an integral part of their success," which seems to me to be the type of comment people make when they can't explain why an unheralded player is putting up the numbers he is.
    Understanding that Z loses ground against someone like [Justin] Morneau for having about 25% fewer plate appearances, how would you assess his candidacy -- obviously he has no chance of winning or even finishing high, but where *should* he be considered? And in answering that question, how important are the following two questions?

    1. How do you assess the defensive value of a guy who doesn't "qualify" at any specific position, and has small sample sizes at each?

    2. Is there any way to even to begin to measure the effect that having a (for the sake of this argument let's assume) league average defender at multiple positions has on allowing a manager to take maximum advantage of platoon splits.

    Probably a tough question to answer. I'm just a big fan of what Zobrist is doing this year, and would like to see more written/said about it.

    Nate Ravitz
    ESPN Fantasy

Just off the top: Zobrist leads the American League in FanGraphs' Runs Above Replacement (51.5) but he's just 20th in Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement (4.1).
Why the big difference? Simple: According to FanGraphs, Zorilla has been phenomenally good at second base, and excellent too in the outfield; according to BP, he's been just an average fielder this season. And just when you thought the pinheads had figured out defense ...

Zobrist has played in 93 of the Rays' 101 games, and presumably will finish with somewhere between 145 and 150 games. That's enough to be viable. I'd like his MVP chances if he were a shortstop (as he used to be). But he's been mostly a second baseman, and MVP voters aren't usually so impressed by second basemen. Not because they're second basemen, anyway. Since 1980, seven MVP Awards have gone to shortstops, and three to second basemen.

Of course, Zobrist is more than just a second baseman; he's also a right fielder and a shortstop. Should he get bonus points from the voters for his versatility? Sure. How many? Good luck with that one. I would argue that it's a pretty good tiebreaker.

I don't think the tiebreaker comes into play here, though. I'm not convinced that Zobrist is the most valuable player in the American League, in part because we can't take those outstanding defensive numbers at face value. Not yet. Nor am I convinced that he's the 20th most valuable player in the league. I suspect he's somewhere in the middle. Closer to No. 1 than 20, perhaps. But, still.

As a practical matter, Zobrist isn't in the top 10 in the AL in runs scored or RBI. That's why he's not going to draw a great deal of support from the voters.