Zim­mer­man ex­pects to stop of­fen­sive slide

Nagged by in­jury in worst sea­son

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY TODD DYBAS

Among Dusty Baker’s as­sess­ment strate­gies is the stealth pat. When en­coun­ter­ing one of his play­ers in the off­sea­son, af­ter their time of rest and into the start of their win­ter train­ing, Baker will put out a hand in greet­ing, giv­ing a test of the back, maybe a brush of the belly. The Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als man­ager is con­duct­ing an in­for­mal body-fat in­dex test to ob­tain first hints about who re­mained in shape and who has in­creased in­take lev­els from Thanks­giv­ing to Christ­mas.

He was happy last week­end at Na­tion­als Win­ter­fest, where he saw a svelte Max Scherzer, an in­shape Stephen Stras­burg and well­pro­por­tioned Tan­ner Roark.

“Tan­ner’s look­ing as suave as I’ve seen him,” Baker said. “He is! He was born big. I bet you go look at his birth cer­tifi­cate, he was prob­a­bly an eight-, nine-pound baby.”

Baker even­tu­ally moved down his list to Ryan Zim­mer­man, a vet­eran in pur­suit of a re­bound. Zim­mer­man was nagged early last sea­son by plan­tar fasci­itis in his foot and through­out the year by an ob­sti­nate bat­ting av­er­age. Zim­mer­man hit a lag­ging .218 dur­ing the worst sea­son of his ca­reer. Dur­ing his 12th sea­son in the league, he be­gan to learn what “exit ve­loc­ity” meant, since it was one of the min­i­mal per­sonal bright spots at the plate last sea­son. Zim­mer­man kept hit­ting the ball hard, a fact con­firmed by eye and tech­nol­ogy, but was left kick­ing around with an av­er­age near the dreaded Men­doza Line. Frus­tra­tion was the en­emy as much as curve­balls and cut fast­balls.

“Zim’s look­ing real good, too,” Baker said. “He’s so far ahead of last year be­cause he had that foot [prob­lem] go­ing into spring train­ing. I had to re­ally pro­gram him, ask him how he was do­ing ev­ery day, start him out with two in­nings, three in­nings — you guys re­mem­ber. See,

he’s way ahead of where he was in spring train­ing.”

There was one month of bliss for Zim­mer­man, a self-de­scribed “streaky” hit­ter. May brought a .262 av­er­age bol­stered by seven home runs. He thought cau­tious early man­age­ment of his foot had helped him to a strong sec­ond month of the sea­son. But, May was a blip. Dur­ing the next five months, Zim­mer­man hit the same amount of home runs as he did in May. The 15 to­tal home runs were his fewest since 2011, when he had 395 at-bats. His num­bers across the board had never been more meek. His .642 OPS was dras­ti­cally be­low his .809 ca­reer OPS and the ban­ner years of his ca­reer, when he was push­ing to­ward .900. Zim­mer­man was last in the Na­tional League in OPS among first base­man.

“Last year was ob­vi­ously a tough year for me,” Zim­mer­man said. “I ex­pect more out of my­self than I think any­one ex­pects out of me. I was dis­ap­pointed in what I did last year. But, that’s the great thing about base­ball. That was last year and you can kind of move on.”

His con­tract is of note be­cause it’s not short. The money, as salaries con­tinue to rise, will be­come less and less of a fac­tor, in gen­eral terms. It re­mains an is­sue for the Na­tion­als, who have cho­sen cost-con­scious op­tions this off­sea­son though they also made sub­stan­tial of­fers to closers Mark Me­lan­con and Ken­ley Jansen. Zim­mer­man will make $14 mil­lion in 2017 and 2018 be­fore re­ceiv­ing a raise to $18 mil­lion in 2019. The fi­nal year of his con­tract is a team op­tion that would pay him $18 mil­lion in 2020, when he would turn 36 years old.

“I have three years and an op­tion left on the con­tract that I signed,” Zim­mer­man said. “Plan on liv­ing up to that con­tract and per­form­ing like I’m sup­posed to per­form.”

There are a few dig­its that sug­gest suc­cess could re­turn. The main one is exit ve­loc­ity, a beloved new mea­sure­ment to see how hard play­ers are hit­ting the ball when putting it into play. Among those with at least 400 at-bats last sea­son, Zim­mer­man was ninth in the ma­jor leagues in exit ve­loc­ity. Some of the names in the top 10 with him in­clude Gian­carlo Stan­ton (27 home runs in 413 at-bats), Nel­son Cruz (43 home runs in 589 at-bats) and Mark Trumbo (47 home runs in 617 at-bats). Pow­er­ful com­pany.

His .353 av­er­age and .921 OPS in the Na­tional League Di­vi­sion Se­ries pro­vided a drop of so­lace for the way­ward reg­u­lar sea­son.

“I think I ended the sea­son strong last year,” Zim­mer­man said.

Those num­bers were more in line with pro­jec­tions that would ac­com­pany his top-10 exit ve­loc­ity. Still, there is lit­tle glaze to mask Zim­mer­man’s of­fen­sive re­ver­sal in 2016, his fifth con­sec­u­tive sea­son of OPS de­cline. He has three guar­an­teed re­main­ing years on a con­tract that will be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to trade if his play con­tin­ues to slide, mak­ing how fit he looked in the off­sea­son a moot point.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als first base­man Ryan Zim­mer­man hopes to re­bound from a sea­son where he hit .218 in 2016.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als man­ager Dusty Baker said Ryan Zim­mer­man is “way ahead of where he was in spring train­ing.”

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