Bernfield: Hot-hitting Zobrist brings critical leadership

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Cubs' Ben Zobrist's three-run home run against the Philadelphia Phillies Sunday is just another example of why Zobrist is so valuable to the team.

    Chicago Cubs' Ben Zobrist's three-run home run against the Philadelphia Phillies Sunday is just another example of why Zobrist is so valuable to the team. Associated Press

 
By Jordan Bernfield
Special to the Daily Herald
Updated 5/29/2016 9:52 PM

Jason Heyward grabbed more offseason headlines, but another free agent acquisition has made a much greater impact for the Cubs this year.

He's a career .268 hitter with a .358 on-base percentage, but through Sunday's action he has the highest on-base percentage .451 and the second-highest batting average .351 in baseball.

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Ben Zobrist has been one of the Cubs' most valuable players, ranking 3rd on the team in WAR 2.3. And right now, he's red hot.

"Zo's been unbelievable," the Cubs' manager said on the "Spiegel and Goff Show" last week on WSCR-AM 670. "He's been so consistent. You can hit him anywhere in the top five numbers, and he's going to give you a great at-bat, not a good at-bat."

After easing into things with his new team through April, Zobrist is batting a sizzling .422 in May, with a whopping .505 on-base percentage. He has been almost equally prolific from both sides of the plate, though he has had far fewer at-bats right-handed.

More notably, he's putting up these numbers while posting the lowest swing-rate in baseball this season, per Fangraphs.com. On a team built to wear pitchers down with lengthy at-bats, Zobrist provides the Cubs quality plate appearances virtually every time, regardless of result. He swings when he gets a pitch to drive, and takes when he doesn't. It seems simple, but it's one of the hardest skills for hitters to master.

What a great example he provides his young teammates still forming their offensive identities in the big leagues.

Though the Cubs are defined by their surplus of young talent, veterans like Zobrist provide critical leadership skills and invaluable experience to teams with championship aspirations. That's why President Theo Epstein spent $56 million for four years of Zobrist, who turned 35 this past Thursday. While he's not likely to maintain this pace, Joe Maddon isn't surprised by the steady presence his versatile 2nd baseman provides.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Zobrist began his big league career in Tampa Bay, playing nine seasons for Maddon on a young team that turned the Rays' franchise from a perennial doormat into an American League power. Maddon made him into baseball's "super-utility" player, providing good defense at numerous positions while also hitting proficiently from both sides of the plate.

Last year, Zobrist was traded midseason from Oakland to the Royals and played a key role in leading Kansas City to its first World Series title since 1985.

Now in his second tour with Maddon, Zobrist is a perfect fit both on the field and in the clubhouse for a young team ready to win. He's one of the players entrusted to show the young guys both how to approach their daily work and how to handle high-pressure situations come October.

Earlier this season, Royals' General Manager Dayton Moore drove from Kansas City to meet the Cubs in St. Louis, where they were playing the Cardinals. He hand-delivered Zobrist his World Series ring from last year. Zobrist's young teammates loved it -- especially Anthony Rizzo, who wore it around the clubhouse.

"We're in the middle of trying to win one here in Chicago," Zobrist said.

• Jordan Bernfield is an anchor and co-host of "Inside The Clubhouse" on WSCR 670-AM The Score. He also works as a play-by-play broadcaster for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter@JordanBernfield.

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