ST. LOUIS – When the Cubs talk about their “young” team, Ben Zobrist isn’t usually included in that conversation.
But give it time.
The way the elder – by far – statesman of the Cubs’ starting lineup has turned back the clock on the life and vim of his game, he might be partying at Chuck E. Cheese’s by the time he celebrates his next birthday.
Zobrist, the Cubs’ most persistent offensive threat during the Cubs’ two-week slide, turns 35 on Thursday.
But he has found an extra step in his game this year that inspires young shortstop Addison Russell to suggest he looks more like he’s 28 and has manager Joe Maddon swearing Zobrist plays younger than when Maddon had him in Tampa Bay several years ago.
It led one media wise guy this week to suggest to Zobrist that he was like that backward-aging character in the “Benjamin Button” short story and movie – which made nearby teammate Jason Heyward perk up.
“That’s your new nickname,” Heyward told Zobrist. “Benjamin Button. And it’s going to stick.”
It might if this keeps up.
Zobrist, who got a four-year, $56 million deal last winter despite his age, is 40-for-99 (.404) in his last 28 games, including a walk, double and two runs scored as the Cubs snapped a three-game losing streak Tuesday with a 12-3 win over the Cardinals.
He has six doubles and six homers in that stretch, but as impressive is the fact he has 21 walks and just eight strikeouts in that period, becoming the Cubs’ biggest impact bat of the month.
“Watch when he takes a pitch,” Maddon said. “I really believe when an umpire calls a strike and he takes it, it probably was a ball. He’s seeing the ball that well.”
It doesn’t seem to matter whether the switch-hitter is facing a lefty or a righty. And he’s doing it swinging less often than anyone in the majors, according to Fangraphs.com.
That doesn’t even count the agility at second base all season now that a 2015 knee injury is fully behind him.
“It’s probably the best stretch I’ve ever had,” said Zobrist, who leads the league with a .449 on-base percentage and seemed on a collision course with a third All-Star selection.
“I’ve had some good stretches, where I got a lot of hits,” he said. “But as far as feeling comfortable, seeing the ball, putting good swings on the ball, this is probably the best it’s been for any three- or four-week stretch of time.”
Maddon and teammates credit a pre- and postgame work regimen that rivals rotation strongman Jake Arrieta’s for an apparent age-reversing formula.
“His routine is off the charts,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said.
Maddon said he also thinks that’s a reason Zobrist can sustain the better-with-age trend into his late 30s.
“Chronological years might be piling up, but the way he works and how he goes about the day probably has gotten even better,” Maddon said. “Combine that with a better knowledge of what’s going on and his ability to apply it.
“You would think there would be a decline in his body and how it works. But I haven’t seen any decline.”
Add that to his steady, veteran influence on a youthful clubhouse, and Zobrist defies not only perceptions about his own aging but the growing industry-wise assumption that younger means more valuable.
Youth became so valued in recent years that MLB capped amateur spending in 2012.
“Everyone’s so focused on young, young, young,” said Rizzo, 26. “But there’s a lot of older players in this league that are still playing at the highest level.”
Especially one Benjamin Button Zobrist.
“I think it’s a matter of just continuing to grow and mature as a hitter,” Zobrist said. “You’ve got to keep doing that. No matter how old you are, you’ve never arrived in this game. This game humbles you quick, and you’ve got to try and stay on top of it.”