The Philadelphia Phillies open up a weekend series at historic Wrigley Field this afternoon against the Chicago Cubs.
The 2016 version of the Phillies have been more than a pleasure to watch. They have been exciting, entertaining, and successful over the first two months of the season.
All in all, they have been MLB’s biggest surprise and it is not even close. However, the team travels to the Windy City this weekend for a matchup with baseball’s best team.
They had early success with division rivals, the Washington Nationals and New York Mets, but the Chicago Cubs are a different breed.
The Cubbies do everything well. They can pitch and field with every team in baseball, but what is really fun to watch is that lineup.
Even after Kyle Schwarber‘s season was ended, the Cubs just moved along, rolling over one team after another. They are third in baseball in runs scored, behind only the Boston Red Sox and their NL Central division rival St. Louis Cardinals. They have outscored the Phillies this year by more than 100 runs (256-155).
And then they have guys that just know how to hit. The guy I chose for the Phillies roadblock is one of those guys. He has been many places in his career, but no matter where he is playing, no matter for what city or at what position, Ben Zobrist produces.
Drafted by the Houston Astros in the sixth round of the 2004 MLB Amateur Draft, Zobrist has not always been the complete hitting package.
After being traded to the Rays as a part of a package for Aubrey Huff in 2006, he met with a “swing mechanic” who added the element of power to Zobrist’s repertoire. The swing has helped the switch hitter become one of the most steady hitters in baseball over the last eight seasons.
When you take away a horrendous 2010 season for Zobrist (.238/.346/.353), he has never hit below the .270 mark or OPSed lower than the .750 mark.
I understand those are not superstar numbers, but Zobrist has never been a superstar-type player. He has been steady, as well as consistent, versatile, and valuable. And sometimes, steady is just as productive as a streaky star.
The two-time All-Star has been in ‘The Show’ for nearly a decade now. During his long career he helped Tampa Bay reach the 2008 World Series against the Phillies.
He then made a couple of short stops in Oakland and Kansas City. A year ago, Zobrist helped the Royals to a World Series title.
He has now settled into Chicago with his former Rays’ manager, Joe Maddon. When Maddon and the Cubs ownership came calling to the tune of a four-year, $56 million contract, the 35-year old was not going to say no. He would have been crazy.
And unlike other highly paid teammate, Jayson Heyward, Zobrist is living up to his deal. He is leading the team in average (.346), runs scored (34), and OPS (.972). He also holds the team low in strikeouts with only 18 in 156 at bats. He comes in the top two or three in many other offensive categories as well.
Zobrist is the type of hitter who will spray the ball all over the field from either side of the plate. Judging switch-hitters on their splits is usually difficult because of the number of appearances they get versus right-handed pitching.
Zobrist’s case is no different. He has batted right-handed less than half the number of at-bats than left-handed over the course of the last three full seasons (from 2013-2015: 509-1140).
Looking at the numbers critically, one would think he is more successful versus left-handed pitching because of his .301 average, but in a larger sample size, he has hit nearly .270 over the same course of time.
Against lefties, Zobrist can be susceptible to pitches up in the zone. It seems as though balls lower in the zone, he loves to drive. However, versus right-handers, he has more weaknesses.
The entire inner half of the plate is a struggle for Zobrist when he hits lefty. Seeing his heat map makes me think of Shane Victorino on the inner half. When ‘The Flyin’ Hawaiian’ got pitches in on his hands, the unnatural loopy swing caused a ton of pop-ups.
It appears Zobrist has trouble with the inside pitch when he is hitting lefty. The Phillies should look to attack that part of the zone on Saturday and Sunday, while Morgan should look to beat him high in the zone tonight.
The Cubs have players up and down the lineup who can be difficult outs. However, the Phillies are going to need to keep Zobrist at bay and off base if they want any chance in the Friendly Confines this weekend.