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What does the Adam Lind signing mean for Ryan Zimmerman?

The Nationals signed Adam Lind, so who is their starting first baseman?

St Louis Cardinals v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Nationals decided to shore up their bench this offseason, by signing Adam Lind for one year and $1 million, with a mutual option for the 2018 season.

A Solid Choice

It’s no secret that the Nationals needed some more veteran pop off their bench. Stephen Drew, Michael A. Taylor, and Clint Robinson aren’t going to cut it for a team that has to overcome the Mets and wants to finally see the Championship Series. This signing is a decent solution.

Adam Lind has six career seasons with 20+ homers, including 2015 and 2016. He bats left-handed, and in 430 plate appearances last season he hit .239 with a .286 OBP and .431 SLG. Basically “solid, not bad.” He’s had 108 career pinch-hit plate appearances, batting .309 with five home runs and 16 walks (including three intentional walks). However, his pinch-hit average dropped to .143 last season when he had only three hits in 23 plate appearances.

If the Nationals were looking for power, Lind may have been the result of scarcity, not so much the perfect fit. His isolated power over the past two seasons is a little bit above average, at .183 and .192, respectively. However, for $1 million, Lind is bargain-priced, and 20 home runs would definitely make him undervalued.

Additionally, my colleagues here at Beyond the Box Score would like me to link you to this pertinent information about Adam Lind’s pants:

What about Zim?

Ryan Zimmerman is basically the Nationals franchise. He’s been with the club as long as they’ve been in DC; this upcoming season will be his thirteenth. He has weathered a couple of 100-loss campaigns, the Kozma-capped Game 5 implosion, and more than one serious injury. Ryan Zimmerman represents the continued plight for a pennant that seems to elude this team, no matter how stacked it may be with power bats, ERA-besting pitchers, and young talent. I freaking love this guy, but Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post sums up the general mood:

Is he a washed-up star who will need to be platooned or benched despite $46 million left on his contract? ... The players he most resembles at the same age are Vernon Wells and Robin Ventura. They hit .218 and .232 with 25 and 24 homers, respectively, at age 32. In a No. 7 hitter, the Nats would take that and run.

Zimm plays first base. Why would the Nationals sign a bench player with only slightly-above-average power (when they already have two lefty options) and who played the majority of the past two seasons at first base? Compare Zimmerman and Lind in 2016, and you’ll see why they were not exactly confident in their first base options:

Player AVG 2B HR ISO wRC+
Lind .277 17 20 .192 92
Zimmerman .218 18 15 .152 67

However, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo made it clear early in the offseason that Zimmerman will be the starting first baseman. The PECOTA projections for these players have Zim as the starter at first base, and Lind as a bat off the bench.

Lind .263 160 6 20
Zimmerman .247 545 20 71

PECOTA has a favorable outlook, considering Zimmerman’s mess of a 2016. FanGraphs actually seems to agree with their assessment, as the Steamer projections have Zimm batting .260 in 2017 with nineteen homers.

Last season wasn’t bad for Zimmerman because he’d lost his power, but because his hard-hit balls ended up as infield grounders. Daniel Murphy recognized this, and said he is working with Zimm to increase his BABIP.

His career BABIP prior to last season was .314, before dropping more than 60 points to .248. Yet according to Statcast, Zimmerman’s average exit velocity of 94.1 MPH ranked 14th in baseball. He’s hitting the ball hard but running into some tough luck. Murphy said,

“You want to hit the ball optimally about 25 degrees at 98 mph.”

Zimmerman hit the ball at an average of 94.1 mph and a 7.6 degree launch angle in 2016. This graph is taken from the 538 article Murphy is referencing:

And a quote from that article:

Balls hit with extreme launch angles (positive or negative) usually find their way into fielders’ gloves as either pop-ups or groundouts, doomed to be outs no matter their exit velocities.

Zimmerman did not nurse an injury this offseason, so he will begin the season with that higher power and exit velocity. The answer to last season’s slump may be retooling his swing to adjust his average launch angle.

Lind or Zimm?

Adam Lind is a good backup, but Ryan Zimmerman has the huge contract and will likely be the Nationals’ starting first baseman. The uncertainty lies in how hard he will need to fight to keep that job. That the team has identified his strength (power / exit velocity) and his weakness (launch angle) suggests 2017 could be a bounceback season if he makes the necessary changes.

. . .

Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.