Nationals Baseball: You're only as good as your next Montero

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

You're only as good as your next Montero

We talked a little bit about momentum in the comments yesterday and I feel the Mets game encapsulates perfectly why you can't plan around it. The Mets had been hot. They took 7 of 8 and only lost that last game by a run. They got an initial run in the top of the first to take an early lead. Everything was going their way. Then Rafael Montero hit the mound. A bad pitcher (lifetime ERA over 4.50) having a bad season (ERA 4.63 going into last night) who had just come off a bad start (4 walks, 3 runs, 3 hits - including a triple and homer, in 79 pitches in only 4 and a third). If there was anyone who would precitably give a bad performance it was him. He did. He was unable to make it out of the second, walking another 4, giving up 2 homers and pretty much ending the game right then and there.

If the Mets lose tonight, Sydergaard vs Cole, suddenly they've lost 3 of 4 with the last game being their current ace losing to a fill-in from another team. In the space of 17 innings a hot team becomes a cold team, mostly because of one bad outing.

We know momentum exists. Trying to capture it though, harness it for use tomorrow, is seemingly impossible. It's fine to make marginal judgment calls to try to capture it, but going beyond that is too far. Like a wave, just hope you can ride it to your destination, if not be in position to paddle, rather than let the tide pull you back out.

As for the Nats. They did what they should do, and what they have done, beat up on a bad pitcher. I fully expect if the Nats catch a mediocre 3 or 4 in the playoffs that they should score enough to win (whether they give up enough to lose is another story). More important that the offensive explosion against the Mets D team* was the Nats C team holding the Mets bats quiet. They had been scoring 5+ runs a game recently. Yes it was against subpar pitching, but that's exactly what the Nats rolled out last night. And they came through. Now the Nats have to repeat that performance, because while it's possible to beat Syndergaard, it's very unlikely they'll knock him out early with a big lead.

A little side note here about Zimmerman (1-4 last night) and the idea of exit velocity.  Ok, so in the world of fancy stats there are a group of people excited by something called Statcast**. Basically it's MLB's attempt to capture everything happening on the diamond. They are capturing things like how fast fielders move and react, more accurate timings of how fast runners round the bases, and yes, how fast the ball leaves the bat after it's hit. This last one is exit velocity.

As you might expect in a very broad sense the harder you hit it the better. That's just common sense. However, when you look at the leaders in these values you see a suprising thing. Ryan Zimmerman is among the top ranked players, and is the topped ranked National. If you stopped right there (like Boz does) this may lead you to believe that Ryan is just getting very unlucky. He is hitting the ball hard but just hitting them "where they is". However that ignores a second important measure, the "launch angle".

The launch angle is the vertical angle off the bat the ball is going when it is hit. The more positive the more "fly ball" the more negative the more "ground ball"*** Why does this matter? Well as soon as you hit a ball it begins to lose speed. That loss is made much, much greater if it strikes something along the way, such as, you know, the ground. The end result is that the advantage of exit velocity is muted for groundballs.

This isn't supposed to be another look at Zimm, but instead a quick look at how to use stats and data. When you look at data know the limitations and know exactly what you are saying. See if you can't find more information that will corroborate or go against what you are trying to say. Zimmerman hits the ball hard. That is all exit velocity tells us. Now we need to see if he's hitting the ball like everyone else in general and if he's hitting the hard balls in any particular way. If he's hitting like everyone and hitting the hard balls no different than the soft ones then he is probably unlucky in some way. Or at the very least it passes the first tests of this theory.

Well he isn't hitting the ball like everyone else. Nearly half of all his balls in play are ground balls, for one of the higher percentages in the league. Next, if you look at the data, his hardest hits have an extermely low launch angle, and he ranks low on hard hit balls with a high launch angle. I'm going to guess with more digging we'd find that he is among the league leaders in "hard hit balls into the ground" so to speak. These two things suggest Ryan isn't just getting unlucky but is hitting the ball in a different way.

You could view that as a fluke. That it just happens that his contact is off in the same direction every time and it'll even itself out. But I don't. We look for more evidence and we get to something we talked about talked about before; Zimmerman has trouble hitting the ball up in the zone. This is where more line drives and fly balls come from. He doesn't make contact there. He makes contact low. Occasionally he will square up on a pitch and drive it. More often though he will pound a low pitch into the ground. This is what you'd see with almost any player. Zimm is no different.

I don't claim to have made an exhaustive look at Zimmerman, not now or before. It's certainly possible I'm missing something here. Perhaps if I look deeper we won't see him leading in hard hit grounders. Perhaps it has more to do with pitch type or pitch speed than pitch location and it is just mixed all up in there. These are the further analysis you assume teams are doing on every player. However, I hope you see from this how just using one stat can be misleading. Zimm hitting the ball hard or not, is probably not just unlucky.

*Did you know Ynoa gave up 2 runs in 2 IP last night and LOWERED his ERA? No even just by a little. By almost 4 runs! Yeah, Collins waved the white flag there.

**Note that this data is still incomplete and has known flaws in measurement. It's best used only in a broad sense

***It is not a simple as positive = fly ball though - the ball of course will immediately start to drop (gravity!) so you actually have to hit it around 10 degrees to get a line drive type hit. And if you hit it too positive, say over 45/50 degrees, it's "too high". Those are generally pop-ups.


KO said...

Does RZ wear contacts? Could he benefit from some off season LASIK..?

NotBobby said...

I believe the pertinent question is why has Zimm started pounding the ball into the ground. I assume he did not have this launch angle in his better years. I can readily think of two reasons (and there are probably more): change in his swing path or a concerted effort to lay off high pitches. The first (swing path) could be injury related or just his mechanics out of sync. The second (concerted effort) may be an aging ball player trying to hone his approach bc (as Harper points out) Zimm hits balls better in the lower part of the zone. If Zimm is aware of this and is trying to lay off the pitches in the area of the zone which he does the least damage, then this may be encouraging. He may just need a little bit more work with the hitting coach and be able to rebound next (or hopefully THIS) season into a decent bat.

Bjd1207 said...

The change in Zimmerman's approach this year is readily apparent. I'm still not sure what to pin the cause on. Possible candidates that I've come up with include his nagging injury and the whole "his job is to drive in runs" thing from him/Dusty especially at the beginning of the year.

But he's swung at more first pitches this year than I've seen in the last 9 years he's been playing here and he's chasing stuff out of the zone in a way that I've never seen before.

Anyone else seeing this or am I writing my own story here? Losing the ability to catch up to mid-to-high fastballs seems to set off a chain reaction. Suddenly those 1-2 counts are deadly even against mediocre pitching

G Cracka X said...

Excellent, insightful analysis, Harper, thank you for this post.

Here's hoping that Zimm can experience a Jayson Werth-like renaissance and bring his career back in line with past standards that he has achieved.

Nattydread said...

I keep hoping that Zimm is able to defy the Harper analysis to turn it around.

My suspicion is that opposing teams have the book on him. He seems lost at the plate and he is far more predictable than he used to be. All of the joy is missing from his game.

Froggy said...

One of the traits that I've always thought Zim did exceptionally well was go the other way on pitches away. Seems there has been a lot less of that this year as well. Has there been an adjustment to how he is being pitched to this year than in years past?

Love the player that is Zim and hope he figures it out. A hot Zim could be the difference maker in the post season.

John C. said...

Harper's discussion of Zimmerman is more in the area of "musing" than "analysis" because he doesn't really go much further than Boswell. Boswell points out, correctly, that Zim hits the ball really hard when he makes contact and says that means that Zim's BABIP should be much higher. Harper points out that Zim's launch angle is down, and that BABIP on grounders is lower than line drives, and says that therefore Zim is getting just what he deserves.

The truth is almost certainly in between. Boswell in his chat yesterday says that Zim's .242 BABIP is "insanely low" given that his career BABIP is .309 and he's still hitting the ball wicked hard. Harper says no, it's not, because launch angle. I think it's much more likely that both are true - Zim's BABIP should certainly be below his career BABIP because of his launch angle, but geez Louise it should be higher than .242! Grounders aren't popups; a lot of them do get through - especially when they are hit hard. So instead of hitting .213, on merit Zim should probably be hitting around .245-.250, well below his career average of .278, and with a few more XBH as some of those grounders get down the line. Not great, especially for a corner infielder, but not the great hole in the lineup that he has been in 2016 to date.

Mythra said...

At this point, I would not be surprised if Zim hasn't tried voodoo, cortisone in the shoulder, and lasik to get past his woes. I've always thought he had a flaw with that high leg kick and standing off the plate so much. Now that age and injury have caught up to him, I wonder if those flaws aren't larger and more pronounced. Even a .250-275 hitter in Zim adds enough in September to help the team. But when you're lurking in Danny's BA range, something is really wrong.

JE34 said...

Nattydread is right - Zim looks really miserable. I don't think I'd ever seen him emote negatively like he did a couple days ago, pounding his helmet into the ground and so forth. Frankly that's the scariest part b/c that tells me he's a mental mess, letting everyone around him know that "NOTHING IS WORKIIIIIIING!" Which is no fun to witness from a favorite Nat. I hope he finds his way back, and soon.

Zim still gets to elevated pitches that are on the outer half, doesn't he? You see more of those awful check-swing strikeouts on stuff up and in, and pitchers are not letting him extend his arms.

Anecdotally, he's hit into some tough luck lately... but if the D has you played a certain way, and you are repeatedly hitting it right at people, you need to adjust where you are in the batters box, if nothing else.

Hensley Meulens had the SF Giants hitters taking BP from progressively closer to the pitching machine, in order to speed up their hands. Zim's swing is long and involved, and might benefit from some simplification. Tough for an old dog to learn new tricks... although no one tinkered with his swing more than one Cal Ripken Jr.

1natsfan said...

Zimmerman started the season batting clean up-he was supposed to provide protection for Harper
It wasn't until the first Cubs series that it became apparent that Maddon knew something. Granted, he didn't want to pitch to an insanely hot hitting Harper, but Zim looked completely lost at the plate. He didn't seem mad that the Cubs kept intentionally walking Harper to get to him. So, now, he's batting seventh where there should be less pressure but is still flailing. When he was playing third, he suffered from the yips-couldn't make the throw to first. Is he in a slump, is he hurt or is he suffering from the yips when batting.

Anonymous said...

Could it be that RZ is not getting enough sleep after the birth of his second daughter born in June. At this point, it could be anything. I remember he was hot just before that for a good period of time.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about Montero but we also had Latos on the mound, they could have taken advantage the same way we did.

Bjd1207 said...

@1natsfan - I don't think its fair to call Zimm's throwing problems the yips. It was more the twice-rebuilt shoulder

SM said...

Though incomplete and flawed, the Statcast charts do at least offer some perspective.

Boswell's reference to Zimmerman's "insanely low" .242 BABIP, for example, is a case in point. Whether it's attributable to launch angle or not is debatable. What isn't debatable is Zimmerman's precipitous BABIP decline over the last two seasons.

Zimmerman's career BABIP average was about .316 until 2014. (It was .313 that year.) Last year, though, it plunged to .268. And this year lower still.

If it's bad luck, that's a suspiciously sustained run of bad luck. (Maybe he broke a side-view car mirror, or something.)

BxJaycobb said...

Oftentimes when a player loses batspeed, two things happen: (1) they have to start their swing earlier, which leads them to guess, and thus their K rate spikes/ B rate goes down. (2) Their exit velo is fine due to the fact that they are basically selling out on pitches to compensate for their drop in contact rate. Combine this with the fact that Zim can't catch up to high gas, and this appears to be exactly what's going on. Zim seems to have essentially gotten old very early, probably due to injuries and in particular his arthritic shoulder. With way less bat speed, his swings are earlier, less controlled, and more max effort. So when he hits the ball, it is hit very hard. But he hits it very infrequently, and the contact isn't terribly precise. Obviously I could be wrong, but this is a pattern that's been pretty well documented with other hitters. (Ryan Howard's exit velocity for example).

BxJaycobb said...

Anyway @Harper, I would suggest it's not so much about the launch angle but the fact that aging players with declining batspeed routinely start selling out with max effort swings which (1) generate contact and quality contact wayyy less frequently and (2) hit the ball very hard when the bat meets the ball.

SM said...


You may be onto something. I'm not sure.

The odd thing is, Bryce and Rendon have more high gas thrown to them than Zim. (You'd think, intuitively, that if high fastballs were Zim's Achilles heel, so to speak, that's all he'd see.)

Zimmerman can still hit the high fastball on the outer part of the strike zone (which conforms to your theory). Upstairs, from the middle in, though, he's chopped liver. And low and outside the strike zone (where pitchers throw to him more than 25% of the time)? Coarse liverwurst.

(Incidentally, no Nat nails inside pitches, from the top of the zone to the bottom, more consistently and authoritatively than Rendon.)

Froggy said...

Maybe Zimmy should consider a bat slightly smaller (lighter?) than the monster 34.5 / 33.5oz Louisville Slugger M9 C353 bat he has swung since he was young and jacked!