Cubs’ Ben Zobrist defies odds by vying for National League batting title
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As the regular season enters its last three weeks, the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist finds himself in a position he never has been before: contending for a batting-average title.
Zobrist was hitting .313 through Sunday, third in the National League behind the Brewers’ Christian Yelich (.316) and the Reds’ Scooter Gennett (.315). A career .266 hitter, Zobrist never has hit .300 in a season. His career-best .297 came with the Rays in 2009.
By jumping into a race for a batting-average title at age 37, Zobrist is bucking a Major League Baseball-wide trend toward lower batting averages. The major-league average of .249 is down six points from 2017 and is the lowest since .244 in 1972.
The average is .248 in the NL, down from .254 last season That would tie the .248 in 1987 and 1972 as the NL’s lowest since .243 in 1968.
If Yelich’s average were to hold up, it would be the second-lowest to lead the NL since it was born in 1876, topping only Tony Gwynn’s .313 in 1988.
Batting averages aren’t the only category dropping in an era marked by high home runs, with 1.16 per team per game tied with 2016 for second in history behind 1.26 last season. A record pace of 8.46 strikeouts per team per game has made it more difficult to string together three singles for a run, and we’re seeing a decline in small-ball categories.
• Singles: The decline in batting average almost entirely stems from a decline in singles. Teams are averaging 5.43 singles per game, down from 5.54 last season. In 2000, the last time the major-league batting average reached .270, there were 6.11 singles per game.
• Stolen bases: The 0.50 steals per team per game are down from 0.52 last season and are the lowest since 0.49 in 1972. There has been a decline since 0.67 in 2011 and 0.66 in 2012 gave way to 0.55 in 2013.
At the same time, there has been a drop in caught-stealings. The 0.20 per team per game this season is a small tick up from 0.19 last season. That was the first time under 0.20 since 0.09 in 1950, when teams attempted only 0.35 steals per team per game.
The major-league success rate has been better than 70 percent in every season since 2006.
• Sacrifice bunts: Caught-stealings and sacrifice bunts are sometimes grouped as ‘‘outs invested in one-run strategies.’’
Giving up an out to bunt a runner to second increases the chances of scoring one run in an inning but decreases the chances of scoring multiple runs. The 0.17 sacrifices per team per game this season mark the seventh consecutive season with a new low, starting with 0.30 in 2012.
As for Zobrist, he has rebounded to an .845 OPS after a .693 in an injury-plagued 2017 followed an .831 in 2016. Prorated for playing time, his 2.8 WAR at Baseball-Reference.com is about the same level as his 3.7 in 2016 after a 0.5 last season.
That’s a banner season, regardless of whether Zobrist can pull off a batting-title surprise.