Washington Nationals: Fixing Ryan Zimmerman

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Ryan Zimmerman
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Ryan Zimmerman /

Don’t panic about Ryan Zimmerman and the Washington Nationals yet, but maybe it’s time to start putting out some feelers.

The Washington Nationals are spinning their tires this month as several minor issues add up to mounting losses. One of the bigger concerns though is first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who is hitting just .111/.186/.204 to start the year.

After Sunday’s game, manager Davey Martinez told the media that he was not worried about Zimmerman’s struggles.

And, that is mostly true.

From 2006-17, Zimmerman’s March/April OPS numbers typically hovered between the low .600’s and the high .700’s. He only posted an OPS above his career .817 mark 3 times during the first month of the season.

Zimmerman may very well heat up along with the weather (his second-half OPS is nearly 70 points higher than his first-half OPS). He also is coming off a strange spring training where he received just two plate appearances in games, and instead spent most of his time in minor league sessions on the back fields. This could just be a case of Zimmerman finding his sea legs against quality pitching.

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Still, his .390 OPS in 2018 is alarming even as he gets the benefit of the doubt. Zimmerman’s previous slow starts have been easier to write off; a few hits fall, and the numbers look totally different. But a few hits here and there wouldn’t do much to change these stats.

Zimmerman is roughly 350 OPS points from being a league-average hitter right now. He is striking out 27.1 percent of the time, a career worst, and he has already stranded 41 runners on base. The Nationals are 1-4 in one-run games this year, making his struggles loom even larger.

But don’t fret yet; there are still some positives!

His .135 BABIP is impossibly low, meaning it can only get better from here. Even if he doesn’t play better, his stats will still improve. Last year, Rougned Odor posted the lowest BABIP in baseball at .224; Zimmerman owns a career .310 BABIP. The BABIP gods will start to give him a fair shake.

Zimmerman is also hitting the ball incredibly hard. In fact, his 42.1 percent hard contact rate is a career-high mark, and his soft contact rate is in line with his career norms.

Hard-hit balls obviously have a better chance of falling in, and his exit velocity (95.93 mph) is well above the 2018 league average (88.87 mph). Zimmerman’s launch angle is also in a good spot – his current ground ball rate would be a career low over a full season, and he is hitting more line drives than ever.

He has smoked seven liners to right and center field this year, but only one has gotten down for a hit. As long as he keeps barreling up the ball, those liners should start finding grass with more regularity. He doesn’t need to overhaul his approach to collect more hits.

But if the Nats want to maximize his run-producing abilities and not simply bring him back up to speed, they should look at his pull rate as the main culprit.

Zimmerman is pulling the ball just 26.3 percent of the time this year, well below his career 36.2 percent rate. That 2018 number ranks 182nd out of 192 hitters.

Zimmerman has always had a beautiful opposite field swing, and no right-hander has dumped more homers into the right field bleachers at Nats Park.

But, almost every hitter still needs power to their pull side. Even Zimmerman hit 20 of his 36 home runs to left or left center field last year. It’s just harder to hit the ball out going to the opposite field and, while he still has good power going that way, it certainly isn’t prodigious. He can’t live in right-center because the ball will die short of the fence more often than not. Example 1A: Monday night’s well-struck ball to right center field in the ninth inning.

The big question is this simply a slow start, or is Zimmerman no longer able to turn on pitches in his 14th season?

If he is trying to shake off spring training rust and find his timing, it’s a little more understandable. His age and injury history is concerning, but it seems unlikely that he has slowing down this much with an exit velocity that is one of the best marks in baseball. Still, it’s at least something to watch going forward.

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When you tell a player to use the whole field, usually you want them to work the ball the other way more. But with Zimmerman, he is going to right field too often for his own good. If he can get back to his full field approach, his stat line and the Nats’ win total will reap the benefits.