Nationals Baseball: The best shapermetrics of his life

Monday, February 20, 2017

The best shapermetrics of his life

There isn't a problem in baseball that can't be solved in the Spring.

Obviously this isn't a literal statement but a figurative one, based in the constant stream of stories that come out now featuring Player X identifying the underlying issue that held him back in the previous year and how he's now doing exactly what he needs to do to address it. The most common, now almost laughable, version of this story is the one about the player who had an off-year now showing up "in the best shape of his life" but that's only one type. There is a version for every type of malady and as sabrmetrics ingrains itself more and more into the major league culture it was only a matter of time before something like "launch angle correction" showed up.

Last year some people noted that even though Ryan Zimmerman was doing poorly, he was hitting the ball hard. They took that to mean that a revival was just around the corner. Some of us more steeped in the fancy stats noted that while Zimmerman was hitting the ball hard* he was simply driving it into the ground. The difference between a 80 MPH ball hit 10 feet and a 110 MPH ball hit 10 feet is just how much you get thrown out by.

Well Zimm has found out this same information and is working on hitting the ball higher. But as Boz notes it's not a given. It is difficult to change your approach without messing something else up. Try to hit the ball up and maybe you end up popping up a ton or just missing the ball entirely. Maybe you can hit the ball at the angle you want but to do it you have to adjust your swing just a bit so now your exit velocity drops. The balls that were supposed to be home runs are now lazy fly balls, the doubles to the gaps singles dropping in infront of outfielders. To add to the issue Zimm also wants to be more aggressive thinking that there has been such a change in pitching that he's no longer able to take advantage of a pitcher by working deep into counts and looking for mistakes.

Has he been doing that? Let's tackle the question in two parts - has he been overly patient? Boz seems to think so but I'm not so sure. The numbers are out there but not already calculated for us so in lieu of looking at the whole league** I went ahead and compared the number of 2-strikes ABs to the number of 0 strike at bats (Boz's stat) for the Nats Top 10 hitters last year. The result? Zimm was patient but not appreciably more than Rendon. He was also in the neighborhood of Espy, Bryce and Revere. Murphy and Ramos stood in stark contract as aggressive hitters but on the flip side Werth stood out as ridiculously more patient than Zimm. Looking at 2015 and 2014 seems to say the same thing - patient but not crazily so, not like Werth.

Ok he's kind of patient.  Is he hitting well with two strikes? Well no. No one hits well with two strikes. BUT he was during his peak (2009-2012) one of the better two-strike hitters in the league. So there's that. Of course it's been a long time since 2012 and Zimm has been terrible with two-strikes since then even though as a hitter he didn't even go below average overall until last year.  Perhaps the game did change that quickly? Doubtful. People hit terribly with two strikes in 2009-2012, pretty much just as bad as in 2013-2016. So while the game may be shifting, it's a slow shift and Zimm's two-strike issues were immediate. So I do think being aggressive may help. He may be passing up some decent pitches looking for a great one and leaving himself open to get blown out but I think he's not going to hit those decent pitches all that well.

Daniel Murphy may have been able to figure out how to hit better, but Daniel Murphy is a different type of hitter than Zimm. Murphy always hit for higher average and always wanted to hit the ball. He put the ball in play constantly, keeping walks and strike outs down. He did this not by swinging a lot but by making contact when he chose to swing. This does not describe Zimm.

I suppose it is worth a shot. Zimm had a terrible year last year and it's hard to throw up your hands at something like that and say "well hope it changes this year". At the same time any one who's even swung a bat in Little League can tell you that once you start changing things it can just as easily make things worse as opposed to better. If Zimm gets any worse he's unplayable.

*perhaps - statcast still isn't perfect or complete in its gatherings - but it's close enough though for comparative purposes

** Swing percentage probably is a decent proxy. In that Ryan would be about 40th lowest out of 147 qualifiers if he had qualified. Low - indicating patience, but not crazy low.  Werth, who I've noted is a very patient hitter, would be 6th lowest for example.


Fries said...

I have to think Zimm's issue is his timing. Now I have zero evidence to back this up, not even a couple of gifs, so take this with a grain of salt.

When you're hitting the ball into the ground, it's often because you're late and trying to shorten up the swing. The bat comes down into the plane of the plate instead of through the plane. This results in hard hit balls going into the ground and lots of soft hit popups/foul tips. We all know Zimm has a crazy leg kick and lots of moving parts. Maybe it's time to move towards a short stride with minimal leg kick. It's a drastic shift, but it helps your timing dramatically.

Would this impact Zimm's power? Probably, but we don't need a bruiser. We need a guy who can at least get on base right now. Do I think the Nats will do this? Of course not. But Zimm uses a crazy-long bat and has a lot of moving parts to his swing, all of that would indicate that as he's aged, he's slowed and his timing is now off. Give him a slightly shorter bat, move him closer to the plate, and get rid of the leg kick. See how he does in Spring with that

mike k said...

While watching the Mets' broadcast, Keith Hernandez was saying something similar to Fries. He said that Zim's swing was very long, and now that he's a bit older, that fraction of a second difference in speed due to age is the difference between his long swing working and his long swing not working. Hernandez suggested Zim should shorten his swing.

Looking at the fancy stats regarding his exit velocity and launch angle, I can (as a layperson) see how the two are related. As Fries pointed out, being a tick late with a long swing is what is likely causing Zim to drive balls into the ground.

I'm a little surprised nothing was said/done regarding this during the season last year. But that doesn't mean the Nats didn't know about it. They probably (hopefully) did see this but wanted to wait until the offseason before tinkering with his swing.

mike k said...

Also nice pun Harper.

Rob Evans said...

Zim obviously needs lasik. That'll fix him right up.

Jay said...

I still say they should sign Wieters and trade for Robertson. I agree that Zim's swing is too long and slow. He needs to copy Murphy to a degree. Shorter bat, shorter swing, and move closer to the plate. Not everyone can adjust that much mid-career. Zim needs to do something or it may be end of career. The most encouraging thing about all of this is that Zim realizes he was one of the worst players on the team last year.

ClassOf87 said...

Wieters! Lineup's filling in nicely...

Fries said...

I won't bash it until I see the money, but I don't like the Wieters signing at first glance. He's a below average catcher that will get paid like an above average one. I'd rather have Norris behind the dish and save the money for better things (Bryce, replacing Werth, closer, etc)

Ole PBN said...

Tweaking your swing can cause other problems, as Harper noted. So much of Zimms problem is his penchant on standing 3 ft from the plate, and has never altered that. His swing, like many pros, got him to the MLB and has many moving parts (including a high leg kick). Some wisdom from Pete Rose: "If they're jamming you, move away from the plate. If they're hammering the outside corner, move in on the plate. If you can't reach the curve, move up in the box. If the fastball is getting to you move back in the box. Choke up on the bat, choke down on the bat. Make it heavier, make it lighter."

I don't think this will work out well for Zimm, which is a shame, because the talent is there. But his solution is to tweak probably the only thing that has worked his entire career. Teams chart every single game today to find a player's pattern. Zimms pattern? Stands far away from the plate, patient. Hammer the outside corner with fastballs early in the count, and use a sweeping slider for a putaway pitch. Or, use a tailing two-seamer to run in on his hands late in the count for weak grounder to 3rd. Caution: a slider that doesn't break and is hung over the plate could be hit hard. Thats it.

At what point has Zimm ever made an adjustment with his feet to counter what the league is telling him? That's how careers end. Who would have thought that your little league teammates' Dad/Coach standing down the third base line yelling "Two-strikes, choke up!" would actually be speaking some wisdom? Things that a 5 year-old can adjust to, and a millionaire in his 30's with 2 decades of high-level playing experience can't. It's baffling.

For those interested in the Pete Rose clip I mentioned:

Jay said...

I agree with Ole PBN. That is what makes what Murphy did so amazing. Plus it changed his career. Zim barely stands in the batters box he is so far off the plate. I think he needs to copy Murphy. Move closer to the plate, decrease the leg kick, and use a lighter bat. I thought for years the problem for Bernadino was that he used to have of a bat. The one year he did better he used someone else's bat for the year for some reason that I forget now. Anyway, it sounds like Zim realizes he was awful last year and is trying to adjust (something that Danny the K still has not done). I think best case scenario is that Murph has a positive impact and Zim is able to adjust. The big question is how long do you give him to see if it worked?? May, July??

I love the Wieters trade. The one thing that always drove me crazy about Ramos is that he never tried to direct or guide pitchers. He never went out to the mound to try to settle guys down. One of the announcers mentioned that Ramos felt he was too shy to go out to the mound to tell the pitchers what to do. I am hopeful that Wieters can be more of a leader and guide the staff more. That more than anything is what makes Yady Molina a hall of famer in my book. Trade for Robertson and the Nats are a much, much different team.

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