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Ryan Zimmerman’s otherworldly start to 2017

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Ryan Zimmerman has been the best hitter in baseball this season. How has he done it?

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Zimmerman is a 32-year-old failed third baseman who, either due to injury or performance, hasn’t played more than 115 games in a season since 2013. Less than eight months ago, he was a man without a position on his way to being run out of town in Washington, D.C. But somehow, he has emerged as one of the game’s best hitters so far in 2017 and is poised as the current league MVP.

Let’s not kid ourselves: Ryan Zimmerman is still more the player we’ve seen over the course of his career than the superhuman .400 average/50 home run hitter he’s been in the past six weeks (duh). This is a guy who had been on the decline for years, suffered numerous ailments, and recently put up the worst season of his career, culminating with -1.3 fWAR in 2016. It’s hard to believe he’s even a true-talent .350/40 home run hitter at this point, but let’s take a look behind the curtain at his performance so far this year.

Despite the fact that it has only been 32 games, Zimmerman has already contributed 2.2 wins this season, and has undoubtedly been one of the most productive players in the game. He currently owns a .410/.449/.855 slash line with 13 home runs and a ridiculous isolated power of .444. At a 162-game pace, those would be historic numbers. Looking at the details, however, we see that Zimmerman is red-hot, but still playing essentially the same game he was last season.

Zimmerman is currently running a BABIP of .438. Granted, we can’t really say it has been entirely due to dinky little hits, because he has more extra base hits than singles so far this season, but there's no reason to think going forward that number won’t be cut by .100 or so.

That said, if we look at his batted ball data, Zimmerman is making superb contact. Zim’s hard-hit rate is currently 46.2 percent, with a medium-hit rate at 44.1 percent. The hard-hit percentage is over a full ten points higher than his career average, and his 9.7 percent soft-hit rate is five points lower than his career average. He’s barreling the ball up at an unprecedented clip, and it’s generating lots of extra base hits and extreme power. The evidence is clear, as his exit velocity as recorded by Statcast improved from 92.5 MPH last season to 94.2 MPH this season. He is definitely reaping the rewards of making better and harder contact.

Despite the additional contact, Zimerman does not seem to have changed his approach much, if at all. He’s swinging at 59.6 percent of pitches in the zone compared with 58.5 last year, and 32.5 percent outside the zone, compared to 31.9 last season. Overall, his swing percentage on all pitches is aligned in both seasons at about 44 percent. Additionally, he is spraying balls across the diamond at approximately the same rate as last year, while also offering swings at the same rate as 2016 (a year in which he posted a .152 ISO and 67 wRC+).

One of the major differences that’s led to all his longballs has been his home run to flyball rate through the first six weeks of the season. Generally we would expect about 10 to 15 percent of a player’s fly balls to turn into home runs; Zimmerman, for his career, has a HR/FB rate of 14 percent. This season however, it’s an astounding 36.1 percent. Over a third of all the fly balls he has hit have left the yard — a remarkable, and completely unsustainable, rate. Of his 36 fly balls, 13 have flown over the fences; if we regress down to his career average HR/FB rate, we would expect the next 36 fly balls to yield about five home runs.

Zimmerman seemingly hasn’t changed, but his results have. But this might have just as much to do with bad luck in 2016 as it does good luck in 2017. Last December, Jeff Sullivan pointed out that Zimmerman underperfomed his expected slugging based on his exit velocity more than almost any other player. It’s easier to believe that some of his incredible early-season performance is real if he’s coming off the unluckiest season of his career instead of the worst.

At the end of the day, the counting stats that are banked are not going away, and regardless of how Zimmerman continues, he’ll end up with an year beyond expectations. It has been seven years since he posted his 6.6 fWAR consecutive seasons and those days are not returning. Having said that, if Zim can post his expected .270/.280 average, and knock out as many dingers as he already has in 32 games, he’d be well-positioned to put up his best season since 2012.

At some point, he’ll return back to earth, but a modest rest-of-season means a pretty nifty stat line at the end of the year. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano