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Ricescapades: Zorilla, King of the May Bounceback Candidates

Zorilla fans unite! The BABIP correction that will push Ben Zobrist into the second base fantasy elite is already under way. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Zorilla fans unite! The BABIP correction that will push Ben Zobrist into the second base fantasy elite is already under way. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
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Back in the late-1930's to late-1940's, there was a tall, now-forgotten outfielder by the name of Roy Cullenbine. Cullenbine played for the St. Louis Browns, Cleveland Indians, and Detroit Tigers, and was a two-time All-Star with a career OPS+ of 132. He was a genuine man before his time, a bonafide 1990's-type player who walked a ton (he had triple digit walk totals three times), and was probably one of the great unrecognized hitters of his time because of it. He ended his career with a .408 lifetime OBP, and he had a couple of monster years before he rode off into the sunset (check this out).

In 1947, his final year in the big leagues, Cullenbine had one of those bizarre years that just makes an obsessive baseball nerd like me smile. He hit a lowly .224, but walked 137 times, hit 24 home runs, and finished with a .401 OBP. He also only struck out 51 times. Naturally, his poor batting average was influenced almost entirely by an unreal .206 BABIP. Cullenbine had to have been one of the most tragic BABIP casualties of all time that year, with many a hard hit ball finding nothing but opposing leather. Otherwise, with the walks and power, Cullenbine was one of the more valuable hitters in the league that season. Moreover, seeing as how his power had been increasing each season up to that point, it stood to continue reason that he would keep on producing for at least a few more years.

The Platonian cave dwellers that were the baseball front offices, however, didn't see it that way. All prospective employers were worried about, seemingly, was that low batting average. Not the awesome batting eye, not the home run power. The low average, which was clearly just a one-year fluke. This was about fifty years before DIPS theory would become the bane of the traditionalist's existence, and it was generally assumed that Cullenbine's .224 average came about because he just stunk, not because he was hitting into almost historically bad luck. Sunk by the antiquated views of his time, Cullenbine was released the following spring and never played another game, a victim of his statistically oblivious time.

If Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist played in the 1940's, he'd be screwed. Zobrist entered the day with a positively Cullenbine-esque .218/.377/.479 line. His low batting average (it had been below the Mendoza Line until just this weekend) and some early season struggles have had some of his fantasy owners grinding their teeth, but I'm here to tell you that, never fear, Zorilla is about to go wild all over the American League. Luckily we live in a time where we realize that batting average is susceptible to changes in fortune, and can realize that Zobrist is basically the same player he's always been. Some managers hopefully have been lucky enough to take advantage of this to buy low on Zobrist.

Gone are the days where Zobrist was a five-position-eligible monster who you could plug anywhere and watch mash. Now Zobrist is only able to be used at second base or in the outfield, but with his speed, power, and walk totals, he's still seen as one of the top fantasy second basemen in the league, with the added value of being able to be plugged into the outfield on a whim. The only thing that has changed this year is, you guessed it, his luck on balls that he puts in play.

Zobrist's walk and power numbers are right where they should be. His extra base hit percentages are essentially unchanged from last year, and, thanks to a recent home run surge, his home run numbers have actually improved a bit. His heretofore excellent batting eye has gotten even better, as his walk percentage has skyrocketed to 20% (up from 11.4% last year). This has led to a league-leading 30 walks, making Zobrist super-valuable if your league rewards them. It's only that .227 BABIP acting as the one guy in the carpool who refuses to wear deodorant.

Zobrist had three more hits today, upping his average to .234. The statistical correction is well under way, and Zobrist should be in his usual .280-290 range in no time. Hopefully you were one of the lucky managers to cash in on his slow start and trade for him cheap. If not, hope there's still an owner who can't understand BABIP, trade low price for Zorilla, watch him mash, and watch the ghost of Roy Cullenbine smile a vengeful smile.