New Year, Same Billy Beane: Ben Zobrist Edition

By: Simon Westley

One week ago, Billy Beane traded two prospects and catcher John Jaso for utility man Ben Zobrist and shortstop Yunel Escobar. Two days ago, Billy Beane swapped Escobar for relief pitcher Tyler Clippard. While two trades involving two little-known major leaguers, the underappreciated Zobrist, and a relief pitcher may not sound like the centerpiece of the A’s offseason, the repercussions of these moves are large. And I don’t mean just for Yunel Escobar, although he’s probably fairly sour at the moment (can’t imagine what he’s writing in his eye black). The Rays proved to the world that they are going into rebuild mode. The Nationals set up for a possible move of star shortstop Ian Desmond. And, most notably, the A’s got back into the AL West discussion.

The cynical A’s fan might suggest that Zobrist is so well known as an underrated player that he is hardly under the radar. Getting rid of John Jaso and two talented prospects (OF Boog Powell, of no relation to THE Boog Powell—and SS Daniel Robertson) is a lot in return for 2016 free agents Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard. Jaso is the definition of underrated himself: while not particularly good defensively, he plays catcher and has a ridiculously good .359 career OBP and 117 career wRC+ (meaning he’s been 17% better than the league average with the bat). That being said, Jaso is 31 and has had quite a few head injuries recently. This string of concussions does not bode well for Jaso’s otherwise promising career, and whether he’ll be able to play catcher at all seems to be up in the air. Powell and Robertson are studs: both walk a lot, make contact at bat, field well, and possess a tool or two. On the other hand, neither Powell nor Robertson has made it to AA yet, and while their futures look bright, a lot remains to be seen. However, even when focusing on the downsides of Jaso and the two prospects, there really is no way to analyze the Zobrist trade without coming to the conclusion that a lot of talent was given up.

All this talent was given up for good reason. Ben Zobrist is underappreciated. He is so underappreciated that many who call him underappreciated underappreciate him. Over the last six years (since Zobrist was given the chance to have full plate appearances), Ben Zobrist has placed second in fangraphs WAR among position players. He’s placed ahead of Robinson Cano. He’s placed ahead of Evan Longoria. He’s placed ahead of Andrew McCutchen. He’s placed ahead of Adrian Beltre, Joey Votto, Jose Bautista, Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowitzki, Chase Utley, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez… you get the idea. Name a good current baseball player, and fangraphs says that Zobrist has provided more value over the past few years. The only player Zobrist has been less valuable than by the most trusted number in sabermetrics is Miguel Cabrera. Cano is the only other player within 1 WAR of touching Zobrist’s value. Don’t buy into WAR? “Zorilla” (who even came up with that nickname?) has hit 25% better than league average while exhibiting elite defense and swiping a decent amount of bags. Among full seasons, his wRC+ has never dipped below 100, and he has always posted at least 10 stolen bases and 10 homeruns. Last year, he played the least games in a season since becoming a starting position player in 2009, and he still competed in 146 of them, which was enough time to manage 654 plate appearances. Zobrist is, in fact, even more valuable than his WAR suggests. One thing WAR can’t explain is versatility, and it’s worth noting that Zobrist has played every position except for pitcher and catcher in his career. He has spent at least 90 innings of his career at six of these seven positions (barring third base), and has had a positive UZR at all of those except for shortstop (at which he has had a very vaguely negative UZR). At second base and right field, there is hardly anyone more trustworthy at saving runs. Ben Zobrist is a top talent, and if anyone is going to keep the A’s competitive, he will.

Billy Beane also acquired setup man Tyler Clippard– who has an intimidating career 2.88 ERA, 3.64 FIP, and 10.04 K/9– in the smaller follow-up deal that sent Yunel Escobar to the Nationals. Escobar is a solid player, as he walks a fair bit and is good with the glove, but between Eric Sogard and Marcus Semien the A’s should be covered at shortstop despite Escobar’s rapid exit from the organization. With this deal, the A’s bullpen is back to being scary as ever: Sean Doolittle, a healthy Eric O’Flaherty, Ryan Cook, and Clippard are certainly enough to shut down the opposition in late innings. Beane has revamped the A’s this offseason, and there is no reason to believe that they are lacking in any regard.

Zobrist is a top player, much like Donaldson has been for the last two seasons. Billy Butler is a buy-low big bat, much like Brandon Moss was. Ike Davis and Brett Lawrie are two injury-prone players with something to prove, and in true Billy Beane fashion, he has penciled them in to starting roles. The rotation is young and deep. The bullpen is daunting. The defense is solid. The offense is walk-heavy. The A’s have braved the winter storm, and are looking good in January. 

Cover Image: By Keith Allison from Owings Mills, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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