Zim­mer­man’s hot start wel­come change for Na­tion­als

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY TODD DYBAS

Ryan Zim­mer­man played along dur­ing last sea­son’s slog. His poor re­sults were as­suaged by exit ve­loc­ity, a rel­a­tively new base­ball an­a­lyt­ics term that showed how hard balls were hit. Zim­mer­man of­ten made hard con­tact. It just re­sulted in outs. When a for­mer All-Star hits .218 in a sea­son, he will latch-on to any streak of light in the dark­ness.

At spring train­ing, Zim­mer­man’s locker was sta­tioned next to Daniel Mur­phy’s in the back-cor­ner hous­ing for the team’s veter­ans and stars. Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper were also an­chored there. Be­ing next to Mur­phy led to con­ver­sa­tions about exit ve­loc­ity, launch an­gle and other math­e­mat­i­cal pa­ram­e­ters around hit­ting. Mur­phy is a self-pro­fessed hit­ting nerd who em­braces ev­ery dec­i­mal point and tac­tic. Zim­mer­man lis­tened to Mur­phy make the case to add more lift to his swing. He ab­sorbed the in­for­ma­tion, then started spring in search of a bal­ance of be­liev­ing in the old way, lis­ten­ing to the new way and find­ing any way to pro­duce again.

The sea­son is just a week old, which those an­chored in an­a­lyt­ics will make clear is too small a sam­ple size for con­clu­sions, but Zim­mer­man’s start has made him ap­pear re­booted. In the sec­ond game of the year, he hit an op­po­site-field home run. He came into Tues­day hit­ting .400 with three home runs and two dou­bles. His OPS (on-base plus slug­ging per­cent­age) is a Bond­sian 1.284.

In more di­rect terms, “Zim’s hot” as Na­tion­als man­ager Dusty Baker puts it.

Cor­rect grous­ing about sam­ple size can, at times, dis­count the value of avoid­ing pil­ing on. If Zim­mer­man started slow, then whis­pers would grow to au­di­ble grum­bles. His con­tract (it runs un­til 2020 and in­creases to $18 mil­lion an­nu­ally in each of the fi­nal two sea­sons) and age (he is 32) would be at­tached to each com­ment with his last name in it. A good week, as brief as it is, can beat those things back.

It wasn’t just last year, ei­ther. Zim­mer­man has been on a three-sea­son slide. His av­er­age has tum­bled from .280 in 2014 (when he played just 61 games), to .249 and .218 last sea­son. Each of those years Zim­mer­man has been in­jured and in­ter­nally ir­ri­tated.

“I don’t know if I ever lost con­fi­dence,” Zim­mer­man said. “It’s more frus­tra­tion to not be able to be out there and con­tin­u­ously have things hap­pen, whether it’s oblique, ham­string... Would be dif­fer­ent if I didn’t work or didn’t do things. But, it’s frus­trat­ing when you do put the work in but still kind of get banged up all the time. It’s just about stay­ing on the field and keep­ing con­sis­tent.”

Baker had in­sisted that Zim­mer­man be more ag­gres­sive. He felt his first base­man was let­ting hit­table strikes zoom by in an at­tempt to ma­nip­u­late the count. Baker’s ar­gu­ment was sim­ple: See a good pitch, try to hit it.

Zim­mer­man has of­ten been in ben­e­fi­cial counts dur­ing this first week of bliss. Of his 25 at-bats, he’s been in an even or pos­i­tive count for 15 of those. Eight of his 10 hits have come in those counts. When he falls be­hind 1-2, Zim­mer­man is just 1-for-7 with five strike­outs.

“I feel good, ob­vi­ously,” Zim­mer­man said. “For me, it’s just all about stay­ing healthy and stay­ing on the field and get­ting my work in. I feel like, if I can do that, I can still put up the num­bers I can put up. The last few years have been frus­trat­ing. A lot of that’s been not con­sis­tently be­ing able to stay on the field. This game is hard enough when you can’t play ev­ery day or you have to take a month off here or two or three weeks off here, it’s hard to get in a rhythm.”

A good start is counter to what typ­i­cally hap­pens in Zim­mer­man’s ca­reer. He is a .259 ca­reer hit­ter in March/April. The only month that he his­tor­i­cally is worse comes in June, when his ca­reer av­er­age drops to .231. Zim­mer­man, an ad­mit­ted streaky hit­ter, oth­er­wise hov­ers near .300.

When ad­dress­ing his op­po­site-field home run, Zim­mer­man was asked about his swing plane. He be­gan to chuckle as the ques­tion was be­ing de­liv­ered. It was a here-we-go-again with the an­a­lyt­ics laugh. He does not dis­count the in­dus­try as a whole. That doesn’t mean his men­tal fa­tigue with the topic hasn’t reached a tip­ping point.

“What­ever those guys want to say, they can say,” Zim­mer­man said. “What­ever makes them have their job and what­ever their com­puter says that’s never played base­ball, they can say what­ever they want. But... sure .... Yeah. Although that wasn’t a very high home run. That only counts as half a home run since it wasn’t high enough.”

He rounded all four bases and com­ple­tion of the trip changed the score­board, so Zim­mer­man’s low but suf­fi­cient home run counted like any other. Maybe even more so con­sid­er­ing what chatter would be like were he not hit­ting them al­ready.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als first base­man Ryan Zim­mer­man en­tered Tues­day hit­ting .400 with three home runs and two dou­bles.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als first base­man Ryan Zim­mer­man’s bat­ting av­er­age has tum­bled from .280 in 2014 to .249 and .218 last sea­son. Each of those years, Zim­mer­man has been in­jured and in­ter­nally ir­ri­tated.

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