Can you imagine the outrage if Ben Zobrist was elected to the Hall of Fame?
The riots that would break out in the friendly hamlet of Cooperstown, New York? Thousands of fans would storm the town, raiding the quaint baseball souvenir shops, demanding justice. Sportswriters would call for boycotts and fill their column space with hundreds of one sentence paragraphs.
It would be madness.
But would it be the wrong call?
At first glance, absolutely. Zobrist is a 32-year-old super utility player with a great nickname. His career line is .263/.354/.435. He has 104 career home runs and 459 RBI. By Baseball-Reference's Hall of Fame metrics (Gray Ink, Hall of Fame Monitor), he's roughly a tenth of a Hall of Famer.
So no, as of today, Zobrist isn't a Hall of Famer.
But depending on how you value defense, what you think of modern baseball statistics and if you like players who are given their own Batman-esque utility belts, then maybe he fits the bill. Over the last five years, Zobrist has average 6.5 rWAR. Do you know what Miguel Cabrera's average rWAR has been over the exact same time frame? 6.7. Think about what would happen if you removed Cabrera from the Tigers lineup. Now imagine the same thing happened to the Rays.
Twice Zobrist has topped 8 rWAR in a season. Over the last ten years, seven players have topped that mark multiple times: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Trout, Robinson Cano, Chase Utley, Barry Bonds…and Ben Zobrist. That's quite the company to keep.
Since he's getting older and is probably way into episodes of “thirtysomething”, what if we pegged him to drop by half a point of WAR per year for the next three seasons, starting with 4.5 WAR next year. After that, let's imagine he plays three more years posting 2 WAR per year, or approximately performs like the 2013 vintage of Pablo Sandoval. That's a fairly conservative estimate for a player with his defensive value and patience at the plate.
All of a sudden his career WAR jumps to 49.7, ranking him 24th all-time among second basemen, putting him ahead of Nellie Fox, Johnny Evers, Red Schoendienst, Bill Mazeroski and Miller Huggins…all Hall of Famers. And if Zobrist outperforms those expectations, there's a possibility he could pass Jeff Kent, Billy Herman, Bid McPhee, Bobby Doerr and Tony Lazzeri.
Of course, Zobrist isn't just a second baseman. He's played more than 1,000 innings at short and right field, and has logged time in left field, center field, first base and third. A WAR of 49.7 would make Zobrist the 24th best shortstop…and the 29th best right fielder.
Is that a Hall of Famer?
No, in the end, probably not. His peak is probably not high enough, his statistics too reliant on defensive metrics that could be flawed, his utilitydom sadly looked upon as a flaw than a skill.
But what if the Rays won a storybook World Series on a shoestring budget thanks to a key home run and clutch defensive play? If Ben Zobrist's arm was torn from its socket as he reached out to make a diving catch with a runner at third base in game seven, making Curt Schilling's bloody sock look like a prop from a community theatre performance?
Then, all of a sudden, he has the story necessary to support those statistics. And everyone loves a narrative.
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