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Cubs’ Zobrist has succeeded in exceeding expectations

When the Cubs signed Ben Zobrist during the offseason, it was reasonable to expect a steady bat, a versatile glove and a veteran presence in a clubhouse filled with budding young stars.

What they’ve gotten is so much more. With 32 walks to go with a .351 batting average through Sunday, Zobrist’s .451 on-base percentage led the National League. Seven home runs and 11 doubles took his slugging percentage to .542 — 11th in the league — for a .993 OPS that ranked third.

Put all his contributions together, and Zobrist was 2.9 wins above replacement as listed at Fangraphs.com. That was second among NL position players to teammate Dexter Fowler (3.2), just ahead of the Marlins’ Marcell Ozuna (2.6) and another teammate, Kris Bryant (2.5).

It’s more than a giant step ahead of 2015, when Zobrist missed time with a knee injury early in the season but filled his steady veteran role with a 2.1 fWAR in 126 games for the Athletics and Royals.

Ben Zobrist slides into third base in the fifth inning against the Dodgers on Monday at Wrigley Field. | Jon Durr/Getty Images

Fangraphs defines a WAR of 2 to 3 as a solid starter, and Zobrist would have been a welcome addition even at that level. So much the better if a year after his torn meniscus he could return to his 2011-14 form with the Rays, but that would be no mean feat at age 35. In those seasons, Zobrist had fWARs of 6.3, 5.8. 5.0 and 5.5. An fWAR of 4 to 5 indicates All-Star level and one of 5 to 6 indicates superstar level, according to Fangraphs.

Instead, Zobrist has more closely resembled his peak Rays season of 2009, when his 8.6 fWAR led the American League. Anything above 6.0 is MVP level, and Zobrist finished eighth in AL MVP voting.

Some regression from hot starts is always likely, and Zobrist’s start has relied partly on a .366 batting average on balls in play. His career BABiP is .295, and his career high was .326 in 2009.

That suggests some good fortune, with batted balls finding holes more often than can be expected to continue. His BABiP is likely to drop, and that will bring some decline in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, too.

But part of the reason for Zobrist’s high BABiP is that he has been hitting more line drives than ever before. In his career, 19.6 percent of Zobrist’s balls in play have been line drives, with a career best of 21.8 percent in 2012. Through Sunday, he was at 26.4 percent line drives, 41.2 percent ground balls and 32.4 percent fly balls.

Zobrist was also at a career high in hard-hit balls, according to Fangraphs. Through Sunday, 36.7 percent of his batted balls had been hit hard, compared with 29.4 percent for his career. Only 11.3 percent had been softly hit, compared with a career norm of 16.4 percent.

Whether Zobrist can sustain those levels is an open question. But with an fWAR that already exceeds his total of last season, he is more than fulfilling reasonable expectations.

Follow me on Twitter @GrochowskiJ.