If you followed Nationals spring training closely, you may have rightfully believed that Ryan Zimmerman was the best hitter on the planet. The 27-year-old was mashing the ball to all corners of the ballpark, and it looked as if the third baseman who once made his debut in Washington as a 20-year-old kid had finally reached his prime.
While Zimmerman has started slowly on the stat sheet this season, everyone who was watching the games knew he was absolutely pounding the ball. On opening day, he hit two monster flies that would have left the park if it weren't for the swirling winds of Wrigley. Later that series, he hit a couple of sharp at-'em balls to shortstop Starlin Castro, both in high-leverage situations.
It was clear, at the time, that Zimmerman had hit a stroke of bad luck and that it was likely he would soon hit his stride and return to 2010 form. The franchise cornerstone was coming off the worst, and shortest, season of his career in 2011, and many felt that with his new contract in hand, the third baseman was ready to re-stake his claim as one of the best in baseball.
Things haven't panned out as planned, however, as Zimmermann is hitting just .229/.300/.323 with three home runs and 22 RBIs in 50 games. A trip to the disabled list with a shoulder issue hasn't helped matters, but the bottom line is that at 27, with a $100-plus million contract in hand and more lineup protection than he's ever had in his career, Zimmerman is floundering.
While Zimmerman is walking and striking out at generally his career rates, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has dropped significantly. Over the course of his career, he has posted a .316 BABIP. This season, it's the lowest of his career: .267. While some of that can be attributed to the bad luck we alluded to earlier in this post, it also appears he is just hitting the ball completely differently than he used to.
Before 2011, Zimmermann had only posted a line drive percentage below 17.6 percent once, when he posted a 16.9 percent mark in 2007. The past two seasons, he has posted line drive percentages of 15.7 and 15.9. His ground ball percentage is up significantly as well, coming in at 52.4 percent this season, well above his 43.9 percent career average. As a result, his fly ball percentage has dropped dramatically. While some may argue that you want hitters to try and hit the ball on the ground more often, this can also come as a side effect when a player isn't seeing the ball very well and something in his body is not allowing him to drive the ball to the outfield as much as possible.
A further look at the numbers shows that Zimmerman is not being pitched to any differently. There is no shortage of fastballs available for the slugger, which means that there are really just three possibilities here. The first is that he's simply hit a year-long mental gap where he just can't put the pieces back together to be the hitter he was in 2010. Second, he's done something to his swing in an effort to try and raise his batting average that has just resulted in weakly hit ground balls. Third, he's not healthy. To me, all three are significantly possible.
Will Yoder blogs about the Nationals for The Nats Blog, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.