30 games into the season the season there is a surprise leader atop the WAR rankings. Washington’s third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
In 2009 & 2010 Zimmerman was a 6+ WAR player, a clear-cut, bonafide star who hit 58 homers and slashed .299/.375/.518. As recently as 2012 he was still a good player, but his last few years have been highlighted by injuries and bad play. From 2014 through 2016 he played an average of just 90 games a year, in which he struckout two-and-a-half times more often than he walked, far higher than his career mark. It was so bad that in 2016 , when Zimmerman slashed just .218/.272/.370 he was actually a -1.3 in WAR. It looked like Zimmerman was done as a legitimate player and that he would just be a $14 million albatross around the neck of the Nationals.
And then the 2017 season started, and Zimmerman began hitting baseballs like he has the home run bat from Super Smash Bros.
The Sensational Start
Zimmerman’s current stat line makes for some mind-boggling reading. It’s not just that he is the current MLB triple-crown leader with 13 homers, 34 RBI, and a .435 average (no, that’s not a typo. It really is .435). It’s that he has 25 extra base hits, four more than the next best. It’s that he has an ISO of .472 AND a BABIP of .472. Just 9% of the contact he makes is classified as “soft”, down from 15% when he was struggling last season. As you would expect he is hitting more line drives than before and he is simply seeing the ball better, his contact rate outside the strike zone is up by 6.5% from last year and his swinging strikes are down 1.2%. You can’t get it past him on the inside, and he is still able to reach the outer part of the plate.
Can He Keep It Up?
Almost certainly not, because these numbers are just not human. Hitters will either fall back to their normal levels, or establish a new norm, and at 32 he isn’t establishing a .400+ batting average as the norm.
If history tells us anything, it’s that Zimmerman will get hurt. Fielding at first base will protect him more that his time at third did, but strains and pulls happen more frequently as players get older, and crucially that will affect his bat speed and his flexibility.
Zimmerman’s career BABIP of .312, 160 points less than his number for the season, is where he is likely to come back too, and while his average will fall it should be propped up by a solid on-base. Zimmerman is yet to be intentionally walked this season despite his outrageous start or any real protection behind him in the lineup, however his power heat map shows where pitchers are going to start getting him.
Over the heart of the plate Zimmerman is crushing the ball, and he’s also getting strong results down-and-in as well as up-and-away, however the blue, colder, numbers start to group together down-and-away.
The Slider Problem
An interesting comparison is where Zimmerman is seeing sliders so far this season. The numbers pick up in that troublesome down-and-away corner. He is currently seeing the lowest percentage of sliders (14.3%) in his career, while getting an uptick in changeups but historically Zimmerman, like many hitters, has struggled with the slider, and the more he sees the quicker the fall back to earth will happen.
Not every pitcher has an effective slider in his arsenal, but those that do will quickly cotton on and begin to hammer this weakness until he adjusts to it. It’s this, along with natural regression in things like BABIP and line drive rate, that will bring Zimmerman back down to the mortal realm and make him turn him video game statline into a more realistic one. However that shouldn’t take away from what has been a wonderfully welcome renaissance for a player who for so long was the lone bright spark on a poor Washington side. Now that they are competitive he fully deserves the chance to contribute to their success.