Last season, at age 22, while many of the even best of his peers were in double-A or triple-A, Ryan Zimmerman hit .266/.330/.458 in the majors while playing superb defense and playing half of his game in a pitcher’s park. Zimmerman also smacked 24 homers and 43 doubles. So far this season (through April 28’s games), however, Zimmerman is hitting .222/.256/.324 with two homers and five doubles. A closer look at the numbers shows that Zimmerman’s slow start can be attributed to bad luck and that in some ways, Zimmerman is showing improvement in his actual skills.
This season, 19.1% of the balls Zimmerman has put in play have been line; however, his accompanying BABIP is only .253. According to The Hardball Times, a quick-and-dirty way to calculate “expected” BABIP for a hitter is to add .120 to his line-drive percentage. Thus, Zimmerman’s expected BABIP this season is .311. If we adjust to account for the hits Zimmerman has lost due to bad luck, his line jumps to .269/.325/.370 – and that’s assuming all of his “lost” hits were singles. This is much more in line with what we would expect from Zimmerman.
But let’s look further: Zimmerman has hit the same amount of fly balls as last year (39.3% this year, 39.5% last year), yet this year only 5.7% of his fly balls have become homers, as compared to 11.7% last year (and, incidentally, 11.7% in 2006 as well). This number is almost surely a fluke and as it rises, so will Zimmerman’s homers.
Zimmerman has struck out at approximately the same rate this year as in the past (20.1% of his at-bats have been strikeouts this year, as compared to 19.1% last year and 19.5% in 2006). However, his walk rate has fallen to 5.3% this year, down from 8.5% last year and 9.0% in 2006. Interestingly, however, Zimmerman’s ability to make contact with pitches seems to actually have improved this year.
This season, Zimmerman has made contact 83% of the times he has swung the bat, as compared to 81% and 80% the past two years. Zimmerman has also struck out looking more often this year (41% of his strikeouts are called third strikes) as compared to last year (33% of all strikes were looking) or 2006 (31% of all strikeouts were looking).
Zimmerman appears to be slightly more aggressive this year. In addition to his walk rate going down, he has swung at more pitches out of the strike zone (swinging at 29.6% of pitches out of the strike zone) than in the past (27% last year, 23.7% in 2006). Interestingly, Zimmerman is making contact with these pitches at a high rate: he makes contact with 71.1% of the non-strikes he swings at (as compared to 60.8% last year and 54.5% in 2006). He is also seeing fewer pitches per at-bat (3.70) than in the past (3.98 last year, 3.88 in 2006).
So what do we make of this? First of all, much of Zimmerman’s slow start can be attributed squarely to luck: he has been unlucky on balls in play becoming hits, and fly balls becoming homers. His underlying numbers suggest that while he is being more aggressive at the plate, he is also hitting the ball more often – and is hitting it just as hard as in the past (his line-drive percentage this year is 19.1%; last year it was 16.9%, and in 2006 it was 21.8%). He is hitting the same distribution of fly balls and ground balls as in the past. And he is striking out at the same rate as in the past – however, more of his strikeouts thus far this year have been looking, rather than swinging.
If Zimmerman’s ability to make contact has truly improved, without sacrificing fly balls or line drives, then Zimmerman himself has most likely improved. It’s very interesting that his ability to make contact has risen, but so has his tendency to swing at pitches out of the strike zone.
One final note: Zimmerman has shown the interesting tendency to hit the ball in the air to right field, rather than pulling the ball. If you look at his spray charts from mlb.com, you will see that, last year, the vast majority of his fly balls were hit to the right-field side of second base. However, eight of the ten homers that Zimmerman hit at home were pulled. In 2006, the trend was exactly the same: the majority of his fly ball outs were hit to right or right-center, but all of his ten homers at home were hit to left field. This year, the trend has seemingly continued: nine of his thirteen fly outs (and one infield fly) were hit to right or right-center, but both of his homers were hit to left. Although the majority of his fly balls are hit the other way, nearly all of his home runs are pulled. One guess I can offer is that this sounds perhaps like the characteristics of a young hitter learning to harness his power more efficiently. If this is so, as Zimmerman learns to pull the ball more often, he could see a rise in homers.
Zimmerman has already shown the ability to hit for power (both doubles and homers) in the majors. This season, once we account for his bad luck, Zimmerman has shown that he is essentially the same player that he was last year – except he’s both more aggressive at the plate and makes contact more often. The fact that he’s making more contact should lead to a decrease in his strikeout rate, which, when combined with his consistent LD% and HR/FB, should lead to a rise in both batting average and power. That, coupled with increased plate discipline and perhaps the increased ability to pull the ball, bodes extremely well for Zimmerman, both for this season and the future. Still only 23 years old, Ryan Zimmerman should be a star for a long, long time.
(NOTE: on April 29, Zimmerman went 3-for-4 with a double and a homer, raising his season line to .241/.273/.375, from which it will most likely continue to rise. If you play fantasy baseball, trade for Zimmerman now.)