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Ryan Zimmerman’s Best Year Ever

The 32-year old is baseball’s best hitter so far this year. Is this a different guy than the one we know?

If you’re not a Ryan Zimmerman fan, you should be. I’ve enjoyed watching him play ever since he was drafted twelve years ago, when I was a kid in the Washington, D.C. area. The newly branded Nationals had just arrived in the city by way of Montreal, where they had floundered since 1969, piecing together only 13 winning seasons, losing the NLCS in their only playoff appearance (1981), and never winning the division. (In fairness, a bit of bad luck played against them in 1994: they held a division lead on August 11, when the strike cancelled the rest of the season, including the playoffs.) And so it was that the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals, keen to turn their luck around as the first MLB team in the Federal City since the 1960 Washington Senators packed up and headed for the Twin Cities, renaming themselves appropriately.

Back to the draft: Justin Upton (Arizona), Alex Gordon (Kansas City), and Jeffrey Clement (Seattle) all went off the board before the Nationals’ pick, fourth overall. Zimmerman was fresh off of his junior season at the University of Virginia, where he was a rangy shortstop who flashed power and a consistently impressive batting average. For these reasons, the Nationals snagged him when he was still available. Players they passed on include Andrew McCutchen, Troy Tulowitzki, and Ryan Braun. Five years ago you would be excused for thinking that Zimmerman was a solid enough player but that the Nationals would have actually been better off with an investment in McCutchen, Tulo, or Braun. But now, with Braun’s 2013 suspension, , and Tulowitzki’s inability to stay healthy (he’s already had a DL stint this year), Zimmerman is the last man standing. But he’s not simply left standing. He’s the best hitter in the league so far this year. And he’s doing it in a way that no one expected.

Zimmerman’s batting average so far this year, through a sufficiently large sample size of 30 games and 118 plate appearances, is an incredible .435. Discounting his 20-game rookie campaign for sample size issues, his next-best offering was his 2010 average of .307, then his 2009 figure of .292, then .289 in 2011. Statistically speaking, the 2009–2013 years were the best of Zimmerman’s career, when he mostly stayed healthy while posting a cumulative bWAR of 23 over that timespan, with a season high of 7.3 bWAR in 2009. These years are evident in the chart below, when Zimmerman posted great numbers — all at or close to career highs — with the exception of his injury-shortened 2011 season.

But look at the far right end of the chart. After 30 games this season, Zimmerman is posting career highs in almost every single category possible. Home runs, extra base hits, runs, hits, RBI, average, and OPS are all currently at personal bests. Only his walk rate is down. Although not shown on the graph, his wRC+of 253 is far better than his previous best of 142 (2010), and his bWAR of 2.3 is on a pace for over 12.4. For context, only three players in baseball history have posted a bWAR of over 12: Babe Ruth, Carl Yastrzemski, and Rogers Hornsby.

It’s fair to ask: is it just that he is healthy now? Zimmerman has played 162 games in a season only once (2007), but in only two seasons has he been limited to less than one hundred (61 in 2014 and 95 in 2015). In only three additional seasons has he been limited to less than 140: 115 in 2016, 106 in 2008, and 101 in 2011. (I’m not counting his 20-game rookie season, since he was a late call up and played his first game in September). It’s also true that in his most limited seasons, 2014 and 2015, Zimmerman hit at or below his career average of .281. But in his only complete 162 game season, Zimmerman hit .266 and slugged .458. Health doesn’t seem to be the only answer here.

And although 30 games is a healthy sample size, it’s still small. And it is fair to expect some regression towards the mean from Zimmerman, but it doesn’t seem to be happening yet. In the last 7 days, he’s batting .500 (.524 in the last 14 days) with an OPS of 1.545. There are also signs that Zimmerman is doing something fundamentally different with his swings: the majority of his hits are being hit on a 10 degree launch angle (versus a zero degree launch angle as was the case in 2016). Zimmerman’s fly ball rate of 38.8% is his highest since he hit 41.2% in 2010; perhaps more importantly, his ground ball rate of 37.6% is the lowest of his career, and his line drive rate of 23.5% is the highest of his career.

There are marked improvements in Zimmerman’s exit velocity and launch angle from 2016 (left) to 2017 (right). Data and graphics are from Baseball Savant.

He’s also hitting the ball a lot harder in 2017, averaging triple digits in three keypads of the strike zone and 97.9 mph or higher in three more, when he didn’t average even 98 mph in a single keypad last year. Data from Baseball Info Solutions backs this up, with 48.2% of Zimmerman’s hits this year being “hard hit.” His previous high was 40% in —surprise, surprise — 2010 and 2013. Only 9.4% of Zimmerman’s hits this year are classified as “soft hits,” his only single digit mark since 2006 (9.0%). 54.1% of Zimmerman’s batted balls have traveled at 95 mph or higher, .

So is this an all-new Ryan Zimmerman? Or is this just a healthy Ryan Zimmerman? Perhaps he’s a little bit of both. We’ve seen glimpses of this hitting ability in years past — for example, 2009 and 2010 were great years for Zimmerman — but we haven’t seen him be able to put all these pieces together. It seems as though he has benefited from the “,” hitting more balls hard and in the air than Ryan Zimmermans of years past. But more importantly, he’s fully healthy after playing only 271 games out of the past three seasons. If he can stay on the field, he’ll likely be a contender for the triple crown, especially given the fact that he plays for one of baseball’s most potent offenses. And why not? He’s currently the MLB leader in all three categories (tied with Aaron Judge for home runs). Zimmerman at 32 looks better than ever.

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Zac Crippen

I’m interested in telling stories about people and baseball. Host of @VernacularPod, and Lead Writer at @3rdStringPod.