On September 10th, the Cleveland Indians won their 18th game in a row, defeating the Baltimore Orioles 3-2. The win put them 13 games up on the Minnesota Twins with 19 games to go, placing them one step closer to numerically clinching the American League Central, but the team lost one of its most important assets in the process, Bradley Zimmer.
The twenty-four-year-old rookie center-fielder suffered a fractured fourth metacarpal in his left hand sliding headfirst into first base, and is expected to miss the remainder of the season:
Sources: Indians CF Brad Zimmer is expected to be miss the rest of the season with a broken hand. Indians OF depth helps but a tough loss.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) September 11, 2017
Since the injury, the Indians have continued their historic winning streak, stretching it to 21 games, but the loss of Zimmer looms large, as the teams ultimate goal is to win the World Series after last years heart-breaker.
Zimmer came up on May 16th and immediately solidified a center-field position that was a point of weakness for Cleveland. Although the team has several options to man the position, Tyler Naquin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley, and Austin Jackson to name a few, they have either been injured or cannot provide the all-round production that Zimmer provides.
Upon his promotion, Zimmer hit the ground running offensively. He posted a 113 wRC+ through July, hitting .284 with an .813 on-base plus slugging. He hit eight home runs and twelve doubles in just 208 at-bats. He was the seventh-best hitting center-fielder over that stretch among those with over 150 plate appearances over that stretch.
He fell into a miserable slump once August came. He's hit just .143 since August 1st without any home runs and just four total extra base hits.
Despite his near month-and-a-half long slump and just 332 plate appearances under his belt, Zimmer has been worth 1.6 wins above replacement this year, or 2.9 WAR per 600 plate appearances, due to his outstanding center-field defense and base running.
When it comes to outfield defense, Zimmer is among the league’s best. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was the sixth-most valuable defensive center-fielder in terms of fielding runs above average at 9.5 runs. All five players ahead of him on the list played in more games than Zimmer. He has the seventeenth-best UZR/500 among all outfielders in the major leagues with at least 650 innings played. Fangraphs' ARM rating ranks his as fourth-best in the league. Zimmer's elite defense sits on the shoulders of his elite speed. According to Statcast, he is the third fastest runner in the league at 29.9 ft/s, behind fellow center-fielders Billy Hamilton and Byron Buxton.
While Zimmer’s defense ranks among top of the league, there is an argument for his base running to be THE best. Fangraphs' Base running metric (BsR) ranks him as the eighth-best base runner in baseball this year, despite only having 332 plate appearances. Zimmer maintains one of the leagues best BsR paces by staying out of double plays and avoiding getting caught stealing, grounding in only five double plays and running into just one caught stealing while swiping eighteen. If he kept up the same pace as far as BsR goes, over 600 plate appearances he would easily out pace Billy Hamilton's 10.5 BsR in exactly 600 plate appearances.
It remains to be seen where the Indians go as far as center-field. They have had three different starters at the position since Monday. Greg Allen, Austin Jackson, and Tyler Naquin, hardly the most inspiring candidates for a World Series contender. Oft-injured Michael Brantley is working his way back from the DL, but still has no timetable on when he can return. Lonnie Chisenhall is an option, but it's doubtful the team will want his defense out there in a tight playoff series. There are rumors about Jason Kipnis getting a shot in centerfield:
Jason Kipnis will spend the next week working in center field to potentially be an option to replace Bradley Zimmer.— Zack Meisel (@ZackMeisel) September 11, 2017
Although Kipnis has no timetable for a return either.
No matter who replaces Zimmer in center-field, they will not be able to match the defensive and base running skills of the rookie outfielder. For now, all the Indians can do is mix and match and hopefully strike gold with a hot streak or two. Once its time to build a 25-man roster for the Division Series, it'll just be a matter of who is healthiest.
Bradley Zimmer is the first of what will likely be many missing pieces to World Series contenders in October due to injury that we all hate.
Dylan Svoboda is a writer for Beyond The Box Score and BP Milwaukee. You can follow him on Twitter at @svodylan.