Chicago Cubs: Ben Zobrist forcing the issue when it comes to playing time

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Ben Zobrist was supposed to be a veteran bench presence. Instead, he’s leading the Chicago Cubs offense early on.

This winter, the Chicago Cubs appeared set on moving forward in the middle infield. Youngsters Addison Russell and Javier Baez are the logical choices, given their defensive prowess and high ceilings.

Ben Zobrist, meanwhile, seemed likely to assume a ‘sixth-man’ type role in 2018. After putting up some of the worst numbers of his career in 2017 – including a 10.9 percent walk rate (his lowest single-season clip since 2013 – the future seemed bleak. Could age be impacting Joe Maddon‘s go-to utility man?

Despite it all, Zobrist came out swinging this spring, quickly becoming an integral part of the Chicago offense. After being shut out in two straight contests, the Cubs needed an answer. The veteran and two-time World Series champion seems to be a big part of the solution.

"“The best thing I can say about that is it’s all about rhythm and feel,” Zobrist said. “As a switch-hitter, it’s hard to find that feel early on. You’re two different hitters on two different sides of the plate. Sometimes it takes longer to get into that. I’m really excited about where I’m at now. You just try to keep it going as long as you can.”"

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After hitting his first homer of the year in Sunday’s win over the Brewers, Maddon’s job got a lot more complicated. Zo isn’t simply a spark to turn around an offense. He’s consistently punishing pitches – even when they don’t fall for hits. Taking him out of the lineup when the bats are just waking up could be disastrous.

Hard-hit contact, relying on his power

Why? Because he is the epitome of a professional hitter. So far this season, the veteran struck out in a mere eight percent of his at-bats. Pair that with a walk rate north of 16 percent and it’s easy to see why he’s been so successful this season.

Put those numbers side-by-side with those from 2017? Wow. He walked in less than 11 percent of his ABs and struck out in 14.3 percent – nearly 1.5 percent more than in 2016. A wrist injury sapped him of almost all his power, especially from the right side,

So far (in a small sample size), Zobrist is pulling the ball and squaring it up to center more than he has in the past. He has hit the ball the other way four percent less than his career average this season – but has been powering the ball all over the diamond.

His hard-hit rate remains out of this world. After never putting up a hard-hit rate higher than 32.2 percent (which, oddly enough, came last season), he clocked in at 36.6 percent this year. As impressive as that is, it’s his soft-hit rate that really stands out.

Just five percent of his batted balls qualify as soft hits. For a frame of reference, his career average? 16.3 percent. Like I said. When he’s putting the bat on the ball, he’s doing some serious damage.

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Thinking he’ll keep up this pace all year seems a bit far-fetched. But the fact that he’s not just contributing – but leading – this club as he heads into his late-30s speaks to his character and drive. He’s not here to play. Ben Zobrist is here to win.