Nationals Baseball: Zimm Resurgent

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Zimm Resurgent

So let's discuss Ryan Zimmerman. I'm not going to waste time with a long lead-in. He was terrible last year. He's great so far this year.  Is this real or not? Is this sustainable or a flash in the pan?

I could go through a bunch of numbers but I want to try to do this systematically. Think about how I'd answer the question before looking at the numbers. Ok, well the first thing I would do is try to determine if Ryan has just been lucky or not. Generally that means looking at BABIP and HR/FB rates. It's not that a person can't control these things but there are certain historic limits to these numbers. In the past 5 years the highest BABIP seen was Chris Johnson's .394 in 2013. The highest HR/FB rate was Nelson Cruz 30.3% in 2015.  So if Zimm is beating either of these he almost HAS to come back down. Let's check...

BABIP : .448
HR/FB : 40.7%

Ok he's been lucky. But come on. He's on pace to hit .420 with 70 home runs. It would be crazy if I didn't find him to be lucky. So congratulations we've determined he shouldn't have the best offensive  season in the history of the game.

The next question I'd try to answer is how lucky is he? That's harder question. What I would probably look at next is trying to see if he's hitting better. If he's not then he's probably getting real lucky, if he is there's probably something "real" behind this. By hitting better I mean he would (1) hit fewer balls softer / more balls harder*, (2) Hit more line drives,** (3) swing and miss fewer times. Those are all things I'd like to see. But better than what?  Better than last year? That only tells us that he's not terrible.  Let's see how he compares not only to 2016 but to "peak Zimm",  2009/2010 Zimm.

2009: 12.4% / 35.8%
2010: 14.8% / 40.0%
2016: 15.2% / 34.7%
2017: 10.1% / 40.6%

2009: 18.7%
2010: 17.6%
2016: 16.7%
2017: 23.2%

2009: 7.4%
2010: 7.4%
2016: 9.8%
2017: 8.5%

Zimm is hitting it, at least in April, as well as he ever has. He's hitting it hard. He's hitting it on a line. He's swinging and missing more than "peak Zimm" but that could be a necessary trade-off to the harder swings. It isn't surprising to see a very good statistical month given this.

But what you might have noticed is that 2016 doesn't look too far off "peak Zim" either. Maybe too many swings and misses but he was hitting it hard and while not as line drivey as 2017, just as line drivey as 2009 and 2010. Remember what we were told about Zimm last year, though. He was hitting the ball hard but was hitting the ball too much into the ground.  Was that actually a problem?  Did he change that?

2009: 39.6%
2010: 41.2%
2016: 48.6%
2017: 37.7%

Yes. Yes he did hit a lot of ground balls.  Yes he did change that. It's not necessarily true that if you hit a lot of groundballs that's bad, though. So let's take a look at that BABIP from last year.

2016 : .248

That's near the bottom of the usual range. So there was an element of bad luck likely there last year.

But back to the question at hand. Is what Zimm is doing real, is it sustainable? The answer to the first question is yes, I think so (with the caveat of we're only talking about a month here). Like I said he is hitting hard and square. If I take a look at the 2016 leaderboard and come up with a quick and dirty "Hard and Square" stat (say (hard% - soft%) + LD%) you see the names you want to see in that Top 10. Freeman, Carpenter, Ortiz, Votto, Cabrera, Trout, JD Martinez, Corey Seager, Justin Turner.  The bottom is filled with disappointments - Iglesias, Heyward, Alcides Escobar, Schoop, Panik, Pillar.  It's not a perfect "Up Here = Stardom, Down There = Garbage" but it's close. So while .420 70 HR pace is not sustainable, I don't think that's what you're asking. If he keeps hitting like he is, a fair expectation would be something like .310 and a 28 HR pace.*** What would be the best case if luck never went away just became reasonable season long most lucky? Oh like finishing the season .370+ with 50+ homers. Worst case if luck spun around to worst reasonable while still hitting like this?  Like .250 with 25 homers.

The sustainable question, "can keep hitting like this" - not "are the stats real", is a big I don't know. Certainly players can hit for a season generally like Zimm is now. But can Zimm do it? Or is this a one month mirage? He hasn't really hit this well since the "peak Zimm" years and even then he wasn't like this. "Peak Zimm" was a patient hitter who worked a fair amount of walks and saw a lot of pitches. 2017 Zimm is an aggressive hitter who attacks the count early. He's a different animal. So I can't simply say - this is how he hits when he's healthy because he's never hit like this before. There's something more here and the question is whether that is something that can last a season. One thing that may happen is that as teams realize they can't pitch to Zimm as they did last year, they may start throwing it down and out a lot more. What happens then? Does Zimm pivot back to patience? Or will he swing and miss at those trying to keep up aggressiveness? Or maybe counter with fewer homers but more singles and doubles to the opposite field?

My guess is we'll know how a healthy last 60% of the year will play out by mid June. At that point he'll have 4 rounds vs the Phillies, and 3 vs the Mets and Braves. If they are able to make exploitable adjustments you figure they'd do it by then. If he's still hitting real well by mid June, I'd buy on Zimm finishing the season strong.

*Hard balls good! Soft balls bad!
** Line drives better than flyballs or ground balls. 
*** That would be from here on out so his actual final numbers would be more like .335 33 homers


Robot said...

Even if Zim reverts to 2016 for the rest of the season, he's done more for the year than I expected of him going into this season. I am very happy to have been wrong thus far. Hope he keeps it up.

Ryan said...

Seeing Ryan Zimmerman do some damage reminds me of all the terrible teams we used to root for, really makes me appreciate the last few years. He looks so good at the plate, I guess we just have to wait and see what he does the rest of the way.

What's going on with Joe Ross?

Also, I ran into Bryce Harper before the 23 run game, I have to assume that sparked the offense, so you're welcome!

Miles Treacy said...

Do you think the aggressive approach is more a function of being around Murphy and HARPER in the lineup though? Peak Zimm was on some pretty bad teams, so maybe was working counts because he wasn't getting a lot of pitches to drive? Maybe he's just finally realized he can jump on the fastballs early and drive them since he'll get a lot more to hit now?

Regardless, this is great to see Zimm bounce back like this!

Nattydread said...

There's also these: 1) Hitting in a monster line-up lifts his average. He sees more strikes. 2) Murphy is contagious. He is a student of the game and a hitting coach. 3) Murphy gave Ryan his rabbit foot and it works. 4) Aside from injury, last year he had an infant in the house. He didn't get any sleep and his focus was messed up.

Sammy Kent said...

Is it sustainable over the whole season at a .400+ average? Probably not. But IMHO if Zim stays healthy this year, yes, it is sustainable at an MVP-type season level... .340 average, 30 dingers, 110 RBIs. Absolutely. If he gets dinged up at all, well, bets are off.

Anonymous said...

Nothing official from Nats, but according to transactions: Nats optioned Joe Ross to Syracuse. Hey, they could always pick up their former prospect Tommy Milone, who was just DFAed from Milwaukee on the same transaction list. I wonder what this means for a 5th starter??

G Cracka X said...

Zimm's only had one full season where he hit over .300, so I think maybe .310 or .320 is the ceiling there. But 30+ HR is definitely within reach.

Sammy Kent, how are you liking the 2017 offense so far???

Froggy said...

I want to see pitch heat maps from this year (so far) compared to last year. I think because Zimm is batting in-between Harper and Murphy, he might be seeing some different pitches. I also agree with Nattydread that the technician approach to hitting that Murphy demonstrates is rubbing off in the dugout. It's contagious and very encouraging to see the level of chatter before and after successful AB's amongst teammates.

Anonymous said...

Zim was terrible hitting between Harper and Murphy last year, so I don't think that's the explanation.

Fries said...

It's incredible what Murph has done. Even Scherzer is in on the action when Murph is talking mechanics and such in the dugout. Love seeing that kind of chemistry and teaching. Lots of baseball is so superstitious that you just don't talk to the guy with the hot hand for fear of ruining his concentration/mojo/aura.

But as Anon and Ryan pointed out, I'm worried about Joe. I haven't looked into any pitchf/x data, but he's clearly grooving a lot of his pitches. Breaking balls aren't breaking and the fastball is middle in every time. If they really did send him back to AAA, I worry about his confidence. But maybe some time in the minors will help his control.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I'm surprised there hasn't been a lot more talk nationally about the fact that the Nationals just had probably the greatest offensive month of April in the history of the game. "Incredible" barely begins to describe what they just did, especially for a National League team. They're hitting almost .300 as a team even with pitchers getting ABs! It's kind of insane really.

Fries said...

Decided to actually dig into data from Joe's last start, and a few things jumped out:

1) His velo dropped off pretty badly. Started the game throwing 93-94, finished throwing 90-91.

2) His slider was getting almost no break

3) His non-breaking slider was starting in the zone and staying in the zone. Threw 29/34 of them for strikes with only 9 whiffs. He got lucky, though, that only 2 of them resulted in hits

4) He didn't get a single whiff on a fastball. The BABIP on it was .500.

5) His final inning (the 4th), he threw 15/19 pitches for strikes, mostly middle in.

All in all, not a great showing from Joe, and the lack of break combined with the drop in velo indicates either something mechanical or, more worryingly, injury.

Froggy said...

Yeah, but this year Harper is already on base and therefore pitchers are pitching from the stretch to hold the runner and throwing different pitches to Zimmerman. Now a potential harmless single is runners at the corners or a RBI.

Then comes Murphy...

Anonymous said...

Jacob Turner steps up to 5th starter, Joe Ross to AAA according to WashPost...

Anonymous said...


Harper's OBP in April of 2016 was .406. His OPS was 1.21 (down compared to this year but still outstanding). Murphy has been great this year, but his OPS in April was 40 points higher last year.

Zimmerman hit between a hot (but not as hot) Harper last year and a hotter Murphy and was terrible.

Hitting between Harper and Murphy cannot possibly explain the difference between Zimmerman's performance in April last year (grotesque) and his performance in April this year (magnificent).

Nattydread said...

From ESPN:

At the behest of teammate Daniel Murphy, Zimmerman worked on changing his swing path. He hit the ball hard in 2016 but too often on the ground. Now he’s hitting fly balls, and he’s hitting them out of the park and nobody can get him out, and it certainly helps that Harper and Murphy are always on base in front of him.

Here, you can see Joe Posnanski break down Zimmerman's improvement.

Harper said...

Anon @ 8:45 - It's about the 25th best April of all time (say 17th - taking out AL teams since DH, thought there are some short Aprils there so maybe Top 15). It's impressive - were talking a few thousand Aprils here - but I think you have to challenge #1 to get talked about.

Arguably best : 2000 STL .301 / .392 / .568 as a team (Nats are .295 / .369 / .510)

Sammy Kent said...

@ Cracka: It is almost scary to contemplate how close the Nationals are to being 22-3. This offense is going to spoil me.....all season I hope.

Ric said...

Unrelated (and sincere) question:

Why is Lobaton starting over Wieters, following an off day?

Last year I'd have guessed Gio is pitching, but that isn't the case tonight.

mike k said...

I often see Dusty resting players before/after an off day. Compounds the effect, I guess.

Clearly, Zim just reached down inside himself and found something he didn't know was there. He's also trying harder, not trying so hard anymore, having fun, enjoys the lineup protection he didn't have last year (sarcasm), Murphy rubbed off on him, Murphy and the local little league team tutor him before games at the local DC candy shop, he feels he owes it to the fans, and, of course, he's just taking it one day at a time.

Robot said...

Someone remind Blake he's already lost the closer job and can start pitching like a major leaguer again.

BxJaycobb said...

Nothing to add. Just want to say i laughed at this.

BxJaycobb said...

Question for Harper: I don't understand the Turner as 5th starter and Ross to AAA situation. You might think Ross is hurt from his performance and his velocity dropping. Fair. But then why isn't he on the DL recovering?
Second question, if he isn't hurt, why not try Ross in the bullpen (it's not like the organization has it figured out)? It's not just a short term idea. This is a guy who has had repeated durability issues as a starter, and also a guy who can't come up with a third pitch and thus has never been able to survive a lineup for a 3rd time through the order. Plus he is murder on RH and can't pitch to lefties. Sounds like the recipe for a late inning reliever, where his stuff can play up from 94 to 96, and he can be used in innings where you have say, a couple scary righties and a mediocre LH to face. I personally would support a move to try out ross in this role and give fedde a shot as a 5th starter (where u can be a 4.5 ERA pitcher who goes 5-6 innings and be fine. Does the organization doubt he can achieve that?)
Finally, on Turner. I'm confused. By all accounts this guy stinks. Yeah I understand he had an ok day in Colorado. He then came in from the pen and couldn't throw a strike (his MO his whole career). It feels like we are effectively trying a right handed enny Romero as a starter now....

Robot said...

This bullpen is going to kill the team, if not during the regular season (huzzah for weak division!) then certainly in the playoffs. We've seen that they can handle the pressure when the team has an 18-run lead, but otherwise, the results have been terrible.

We need something better than Blake Treinen-and-Failnin' and Joe "Give up a dinger to the first batter I face, or hit that batter and give up the 2-run homer to the second batter I face" Blanton. Even their nicknames suck!

Josh Higham said...

Yeah, those bums with the bad nicknames!

Rhyme Buster said...

I'd rather move to Scranton than watch more Joe Blanton.

Kenny B. said...

mike k @ 12:44 has the master take, and nothing else needs to be said about the matter.

JE34 said...

hey Hey HEYYYY -- more MAAAATTT Albers! He's the only guy who getting people out consistently, albeit in lower leverage situations.

Anonymous said...

Zim just had the highest WRC+ in any calendar month of his career (he did better in Sept. 2015 but only in 6 games so you have to like April 2017 better). If I knew how to search for any 30 day periods I would have done that. Zim's had only a handful of >200 WRC+ calendar months in his career (the one he just had ws 243 ). It's within the realm of possibility that Zim is in the midst of the best ~25 game stretch of his career (on offense) and it's almost certain this stretch is one of his top 5.

This to me suggests the talent is still there. Whether he can sustain high level performance (obviously not this high) and stay healthy is another question. Here's hoping...

blovy8 said...

Blanton should do a commerical for that bourbon. It could feature Dusty calling him in from the bullpen, going back to the dugout where a bottle is prominently featured. You hear a loud crack of the bat, and he opens the bottle and pours out a shot. "I wish it was Andrew Miller time..."

BxJaycobb said...

@robot. I think u have to assume that Rizzo is going to give the pen a makeover at the deadline for the playoffs. Whether by trades, signings, or creative roster moves (e.g. I think the Nats should try Ross in the pen and see how it works) I predict the Nats 2 most dependable/used relievers by August are not currently in the pen.

Anonymous said...

How about that Turner kid...and I don't mean Trea, I mean Jacob out of the pen???

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