By James Fegan
Second basemen traditionally are not expected to age well. As Nate Silver wrote in 2005, “it’s where you wind up if you aren’t athletic enough to play shortstop, but don’t have the bat (or the arm) for third.”
It’s a place to settle in when a player cannot do enough to find a home elsewhere. But for Ben Zobrist, the guy who made his name by being able to play anywhere, it’s more of a final resting place for him on a team that didn’t need much help anywhere else.
Unsurprisingly, he’s an exception to the rule – the truly elite second baseman often are – and despite just turning age 35, he’s better than ever. Second basemen across MLB are hitting .266/.325/.412 through Sunday, and while that might sound pedestrian, it is a higher OPS than has been seen at the position since 2009, before offense collapsed across the league. But even with that upswing, and hellacious starts from Robinson Cano and Jose Altuve, Zobrist is still at the top of the hill.
He came into Monday hitting .351 (as good as he’s been, he’s never batted .300 in a season) – his .452 on-base percentage and seemingly impossible 1.45 walk-to-strikeout ratio both are the best in baseball by a significant amount, though teammate Dexter Fowler‘s .433 OBP is second.
Less than a year ago, the Cubs finished the first half ranking 11th in the National League in runs scored. It was par for the course for a lineup still breaking in a very young core; one that is now dominating the league with an NL-best 5.69 runs per game.
But that first half also contained the worst Starlin Castro had to offer. He hit .247/.283/.321 in his sixth year as the Cubs everyday shortstop. The laundry list of players the Cubs cycled through at second base in 2015 began with Opening Day starter Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara, before Addison Russell was called up in late-April and handed the full-time job. But by early-August, as the Cubs transitioned away from Castro, Russell switched to shortstop and smatterings of Chris Coghlan and Jonathan Herrera took over at second before Castro came on at the end.
Even with a boffo month of September from Castro, by Baseball-Reference.com wins above replacement, the Cubs got as much value from their second basemen all year as Zobrist has provided in a little less than two months.
Zobrist has been extraordinary, and the runs he’s generated, and the cushy NL Central lead the Cubs have carved out for themselves are all in the bank. He’ll probably cool off, not because he’s a fluke, or because all the counts he worked, and the pitches he barreled were just good luck, but because 35-year-olds – even remarkably fit ones with elite plate approaches – don’t make a habit of setting career-bests.
But the Cubs don’t even need that much from Zobrist. A team with Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant is not in search of a lineup anchor. What’s he’s allowed the Cubs to do is replace last season’s hodgepodge with a permanent fixture, where even the still 22-year-old Russell’s .250/.344/.384’s start blows away what the Cubs got from the shortstop position last season. That stability means the Cubs aren’t burned by Javier Baez – now a capable, hyper-athletic utility man – and his absentee power, and don’t have to worry about how much of Tommy La Stella’s .294/.392/.515 batting line is inflated by early-season helium.
After the first 11 games, Zobrist was sitting at .214/.333/.262. It was early, but the lack of pop at his age raised concern that the Cubs, with their young and brilliant core, had made their first reach for a big name that was past his prime. Instead, Zobrist is likely their first-half MVP.
The Cubs entered the season as World Series favorites, but like any team they need some breaks to make it all the way. Their suddenly spectacular second baseman counts as one.