One of the running tropes in baseball involves the Tampa Bay Rays seeking a new Ben Zobrist.
Ever since Zobrist became a productive utilityman during the 2008 season, he's served as the comparison for almost every multi-positional player acquired by Tampa Bay. The Rays traded Zobrist after the 2014 season, and have since tore through countless imposters hoping lightning would strike twice.
It hasn't, but Daniel Robertson -- coincidentally part of the Zobrist return -- is doing a decent job reminding folks what Zobrist brought to the table.
Robertson entered Thursday hitting .258/.381/.407 (123 OPS+) in 85 games this season. Those marks are above and beyond what he did last year, when he batted .206/.308/.326 in 75 games. Robertson has upped his offensive game while maintaining his protean nature. Check out his games by position tally:
- Second base: 38 appearances, 34 starts
- Shortstop: 28 appearances, 24 starts
- Third base: 19 appearances, 14 starts
- Left field: four appearances, four starts
- And, for fun, pitcher: one appearance, zero starts (or opens)
Robertson isn't Zobrist, who used to bounce between second base and right field, but his versatility makes Kevin Cash's job easier. Now that Willy Adames is entrenched at shortstop, it's to be determined whether Robertson will become more of a full-time second baseman, or if he'll get to venture onto the Tropicana Field turf more often as part of some outfield platoon.
Whatever comes next, the key to Robertson becoming more than a novelty is sustaining his offensive gains. Back in May, he credited his improvements at the plate to an altered swing. Per FanGraphs:
"I changed where I'm firing my barrel from, basically. I don't know how I got away with it in the minor leagues for so long, but I was always a guy who thought, 'Throw your hands down to the ball.' Now I've kind of bought into launch angle and getting on plane with the baseball. That allows my barrel to stay in the zone longer and essentially allows me to see the ball longer.
Though Robertson said he had "bought into launch angle," Statcast has his launch angle declining as compared to last season: from 8.4 degrees to 7.7 degrees. Both marks are below the league average. Ditto for his 86.3 mph exit velocity.
Still, there are reasons to believe Robertson is a different, improved hitter. He's always employed a discipline approach, yet this season he's managed to increase his walk rate (up 1.5 percentage points to 12.9 percent) and isolated slugging (up 30 points, to .149) while slashing into his strikeout rate (down 5.6 percentage points to 23.1 percent) -- all positive signs. How is Robertson slugging more without altering his launch angle? Perhaps due to a different angle.
Everyone thinks about batted balls in regards to their vertical arc. But Robertson has changed the horizontal aspect: he's pulled 37.5 percent of his balls in play this season, as opposed to 25.7 last year. The results have been a little worse (a 1.125 OPS versus a 1.176 OPS), but the increased volume has more than made up for it. What's better is that Robertson is hitting the ball the other way less often, which is a good thing based on his results to right field.
There's no telling what the Rays have in mind for Robertson heading forward.Tampa Bay has Adames for short and could graduate second-base prospect Nick Solak to the majors next season. Yet Robertson has done enough to merit a longer look as an everyday player.
No, the Rays haven't found their new Zobrist -- that's a fool's pursuit. What they may have found in Robertson is a quality, versatile player whose self-improvement efforts are paying off.