Ryan Zimmerman was in danger of losing his job at the end of 2016. Once a great defensive third baseman with a bat to back it up, he has declined in recent years. A bad shoulder forced his move to first base, and then his bat declined, too. He was one of the worst players in baseball last year, hitting .218/.272/.370. A 67 wRC+ from a first baseman resulted in Zimmerman being worth less than a full win below replacement level.
Coming into the 2017 regular season, Zimmerman was still owed $48 million through 2019. One had to wonder if the Nationals would decide to DFA Zimmerman if he continued to struggle at the levels he did in 2016. A contending team cannot be rostering a sub-replacement level player, regardless of how much he makes. The Red Sox faced a similar dilemma with Pablo Sandoval recently, and they made the right decision in cutting their sunk cost. The Nationals would have faced an easier challenge in having to replace a first baseman who can’t hit, because that is the easiest position to fill on the baseball field.
Zimmerman assuaged those fears rather quickly, as I am sure you are aware. He arguably became the face of the flyball revolution, hitting .420/.458/.886 with 11 HR in April. His 40.6 percent flyball rate was the highest it had been since his 2010 season, a year which saw him hit .307/.388/.510. Since that season, he turned into more and more of a groundball hitter. Whether he was doing it purposely or it was the result of a declining ability to square up the ball is difficult to say. Whatever the reason, it clearly was not working.
Shockingly, Zimmerman’s .448 BABIP and near 40 percent HR/FB ratio in April were unsustainable, and he quickly fell off after that. He hit .319/.363/.543 with 4 HR in May. That is still pretty good, and his April numbers were inflating his season line so much that he was still hitting .368/.409/.709 at the end of May. What was most interesting is that his flyball rate fell significantly in May to 30.7 percent. That is a drop of 25 percent over his April rate.
Whatever Zimmerman was doing in order to increase his flyball rates, he could not sustain it for more than a month. His May flyball rate has continued since then. He has been a league-average hitter since the beginning of May, but he seems to be declining more and more. If we arbitrarily move the endpoint to the beginning of June, he has been hitting only .245/.296/.431 for a 85 wRC+. Furthermore, it appears that his struggles could be getting to him, because he seems to be pressing with a 27.1 percent strikeout rate since July.
Zimmerman’s season line is currently at .305/.351/.568, which is good for a 134 wRC+, and his flyball rate is the lowest of his career if we take out his flukish April. On the bright side, his line drive rate and his hard-hit rate are the highest they have been since 2013. In other words, while Zimmerman might have made some real improvement, there is no way that his current 2017 stats are representative of his true talent.
Injuries can complicate things, too. Zimmerman’s struggles since June could be the result of a back injury he suffered. His disastrous 2016 season could also be blamed on the multitude of injuries he suffered in 2015. A 69 point drop in wOBA from 2014 to 2016 does not tend to happen naturally.
Steamer currently projects Zimmerman’s true talent at .273/.333/.492. The guy who started the season like peak Barry Bonds might have trouble reaching 3 WAR for the season. If his back is still bothering him, though, who knows what his true talent is right now.
The Nationals are getting so much offense elsewhere that they can withstand a slumping Zimmerman. Still, a team needs all the help they can get in the playoffs. With two years left on his contract, one has to wonder about how those years will go. But if the Nationals win a World Series, I am sure their fans will live with whatever happens with Zimmerman.
. . .
Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.