Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ryan Zimmerman, Sleeper?

The term “Professional Hitter” is a pretty bad way to describe someone, if you ask me. Danny Espinosa is a professional hitter, just not a very good one. If you want to know why that term started getting thrown around, though, you need look no further than Ryan Zimmerman. The original face of the Nationals’ franchise, Zimmerman has been the most consistent offensive player the Nationals have ever had. In his 9 full major league season, Zimmerman has accrued over 600 plate appearances every season but three, his batting average has never dipped below .260, and he has failed to hit double digit homeruns only this past 2014 season. Of course, he had a couple significant injuries in 2014 that have since pushed him across the diamond defensively to first base and have people questioning whether that consistent offensive output can continue as Zimmerman continues to get older. I’m here to say that if you are looking for a “sleeper” on the Nats for 2015, Zimmerman may very well be the best bet.

Throughout his career and even in 2014, Zimmerman has had a great feel for the strike zone. He has consistently posted walk rates well below the league average and nearly set a mark for the lowest strikeout rate of his career in 2014 (in the midst of a pitching dominant era in MLB, keep in mind). While Zimmerman has started to expand his strike zone some, his O-Swing% is now right around the MLB average of 30% the last 4 years after sitting much lower at 25% for his career. Even with that slight uptick in swings out of the zone, Zimmerman’s swinging strike rate in 2014 was actually a career low at 7%. Again, keeping in mind the pitching dominant era we are in, a batter like Zimmerman who can control the strike zone, hit for average, and hit for power is highly valuable.
The big question mark for Zimmerman will be his ability to hit for power going forward. Historically, his ISO has jumped around a lot along with his average fly ball and homerun distance (both good indicators of power). In 2014, he didn’t quite post career lows for those two categories, but he wasn’t far off. So how can I be so confident in Zimmerman’s ability to bounce back from his injury plagued 2014? Well, his 2014 power stats are eerily similar to his power stats in the other years he battled injuries. Back in 2011, when he was limited to only 440 plate appearances, he put up an ISO of .154 (his career low), and a fly ball distance of 279 feet (also a career low). He came back healthy in 2012 and put up a .196 ISO and a fly ball distance of 293 feet. The same is true for his 2008 onto 2009 season, adding 74 points to his ISO and nearly 15 feet to his fly ball distance. On top of that, Zimmerman was struggling through a hand injury in 2014, which we already noted when looking at Bryce Harper is known to sap power for an extended period of time even after fully healing. Given a full offseason to recover, I would expect Zimmerman’s power stroke to return. Early in the season, watch for Zimmerman’s ability to hit the ball to right-center field with power, that’s the best sign for his swing that he is confident and his power is back.

Of course, the biggest news for Zimmerman this offseason was his move to first base. It might be setting the bar too high to expect gold glove caliber work out of Zimmerman in his first season there, but I don’t think it’s too much a reach. Zimmerman has always been known for his soft hands at the hot corner and the shoulder problems that led to the position switch actually impacted his range as well. He positioned himself differently after the injury to try and cut down on the distance he had to throw to first base. That effectively sapped his range as well, as he also cut down on the time he had to react to balls hit his way. Moving to first, he won’t have to deal with that concern and I would expect to see substantially fewer groundballs getting through that side of the infield. It will take some adjusting for Zimmerman to get used to seeing the field from the other side of the diamond, but an athlete like Zimmerman, I wouldn’t expect it to take too long for him to get comfortable over there.

Given what we know about the injuries Zimmerman had to fight through in 2014, the fact that his peripheral offensive stats were more or less consistent (minus the power numbers), is a great sign for 2015. With the offseason a great opportunity to rest, recover, and adjust to the position change, I look for Zimmerman return as a key piece of the heart of the Nationals’ lineup.

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