Yesterday, I did an interview with Martin Fennelly of the Tampa Tribune, in the course of which I said a lot of positive things about Joe Maddon. Not one to let an encomium pass by unchallenged, Mr. Fennelly asked me why I liked Maddon so much. I said, in far too many words, “flexibility,” but what I really meant was this: I like Joe Maddon because of Ben Zobrist. Similarly, I like Ben Zobrist because of Joe Maddon. They are a lot like chocolate and marshmallow. Taken separately, they have their moments. Put them together and magic happens.
Having an everyday sub is a sign of intelligence in managers. I first realized this when I began learning about Casey Stengel and realized just how important Gil McDougald was to his Yankees teams. Until the Herb Score incident derailed him emotionally, McDougald was an above-average hitter, though somewhat neutered by old Yankee Stadium (he was a career .296/.379/.469 hitter on the road versus .255/.333/.348 in the Bronx), who was the Yankees’ second baseman-shortstop-third baseman, depending on need, yet was in the lineup every day.
A manager has many jobs, but if you want to boil down one of the most important, that of allotting playing time, to its basic essence, it’s stay the hell away from the replacement level. When the team has an injury, does the manager shrug his shoulders and plug in Cody Ransom, Clay Bellinger, or some equally execrable bit of Triple-A fodder, or does he find a way to shuffle things so that he gets a good all-around player into the lineup, even at the cost of distorting the defense? The great managers don’t accept one-for-one substitutions that leave them at a major loss. They don’t replace Chase Utley with Wilson Valdez when doing so means that you’re writing off what had been a major part of your offense for the duration. They think, “How is the injury to my second baseman an opportunity to get a second right fielder into the lineup?” and they identify players who have the skills to make that possible—which is to say that they’ve anticipated how to deal with injuries even before the injuries happen.
A few years after McDougald, Stengel repeated the McDougald trick with Tony Kubek, who won the 1957 Rookie of the Year award despite playing 50 games in the outfield, 41 at shortstop, 38 at third base, and one at second. Connie Mack’s version of McDougald was Jimmy Dykes, who had nearly 500 plate appearances for the world champion 1929 Athletics as he bounced around the infield, hitting .327/.412/.539 in the process. Billy Goodman was a .300 career hitter in over 1,600 career games, but he rarely escaped the everyday sub role that Joe McCarthy carved out for him in the late 1940s—a good thing for his team. In 1950, he won the AL batting title, hitting .354/.427/.455 while playing 45 games in the outfield and 54 more spread out over the infield. Closer to our own time, Tony LaRussa pushed Tony Phillips all over the field, which took a glove that was subpar at shortstop and turned it into something of an asset while exploiting what became an increasingly useful bat.
Zobrist is the modern successor to those players, an above-average bat who can tend seven of the nine positions on the diamond. Through the 2007 season, he was, despite very positive production in the minor leagues, just a middling shortstop prospect. In our 2007 annual, we described him this way: “Part of the payoff for Aubrey Huff, Zobrist is less the Shortstop of the Future than the shortstop of right now. Too old to be considered a high-ceiling prospect, he`s still a solid player with great command of the strike zone. He doesn't have much power to speak of, but if he can catch the ball and get on base, he`ll be plenty serviceable for the time being.” He was just a guy—Baseball America reported that he reminded the Astros of Bill Spiers, a career .271/.341/.370 hitter, though whoever thought up the analogy was prescient in that Spiers, also initially a shortstop, finished his career as an everyday sub as well.
During the 2006 season, Maddon’s first at the helm, incumbent shortstop Julio Lugo was traded, giving Zobrist a shot at the job. He didn’t hit. Zobrist opened the 2007 season at shortstop, but quickly yielded to Brendan Harris after hitting .148 in April. After two seasons and 83 games, he was a .200/.234/.275 hitter. It was at this point that the Rays made one of the best deals in their short history, swapping Harris, Jason Pridie, and Delmon Young to the Twins for Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, and minor-league pitcher Eddie Morlan. Zobrist’s failure meant Bartlett had superseded him.
Yet, Maddon did not throw him away. The surprise dénouement to the Zobrist rags-to-riches story was delayed by a thumb injury early in 2008, but from the moment he returned, Maddon seems to have conceived of him as a multi-position player. He was also pretty clearly a reserve at first, but when Bartlett got hurt himself, Zobrist got a chance to play and hit just well enough (.227/.306/.443 with five home runs in 98 PAs) to intrigue his manager. Suddenly he was playing almost every day, or at least pinch-hitting, bouncing from left field to center to third base to second and hitting .274/.366/.579 over the rest of the season.
Recognizing a good thing when he saw it, Maddon went whole hog for the Zobrist Supersub Plan in 2009, although it took an injury to Akinori Iwamura to provide impetus to get Zobrist out of a right-field platoon role and into the lineup. The result was a campaign that arguably deserved stronger MVP award consideration than the eighth-place showing it received. No one was going to beat Joe Mauer out that year (nor should anyone have), but by WARP, Zobrist was the third-best position player in the league. Not that Maddon’s handling was perfect—when Carlos Pena got hurt in early September, Maddon kept Zobrist in a rotation with the again-healthy Iwamura at second and Greg Gross and Gabe Kapler in right field. He made only two starts at first base that month, Maddon apparently content to suffer with Willy Aybar and Chris Richard, exactly the kind of players Zobrist should have allowed him to avoid.
The 2010 encore was not of the same quality as nagging injuries sapped Zobrist’s swing, particularly in the second half when he hit .177/.294/.293, but thanks to 92 walks and his appearances at six positions, he still retained value. If he rebounds this year, Zobrist will continue to be both the greatest exemplar of Joe Maddon’s managerial insight and the player who makes it possible for him to act on it. He fits perfectly on a team that, Evan Longoria aside, has a lot of just-decent players. Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac are useful infielders, but they have their weaknesses, primarily a lack of interest in getting on base, and the more you see of them the more exposed they are. Matt Joyce is a good fielder and underrated hitter, but not a budding star, and Dan Johnson is a journeyman looking for another chance. Anytime the use of Zobrist allows Maddon to save these players from an unfavorable matchup, the Rays have stolen a march on the opposition.
The Rays have a third component, a manager who recognizes an opportunity when he sees one. The result is that when the Rays get hurt, you don’t see a Ramiro Pena in the lineup, or a Wilson Valdez. You get a guy who could have been an MVP. Maddon didn’t have to use Zobrist this way—he could have nailed him to a position or made him a more traditional bench player. Thus, Maddon made Zobrist great, and Zobrist made Maddon great, and the only thing that would make him still greater is if, when the two someday are parted, the manager attempts to mold another player along the same lines. That would equal not just serendipity but planning, a premeditated effort to stay above replacement, and confirmation of what passes for managerial genius.