WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Everyone seems to agree that Ryan Zimmerman has some work to do to rebound from the worst offensive year of his 12-year major league career. Teams need power from first base, and Zimmerman’s .218/.272/.2370 slash line, 15 homers and 46 RBIs left something to be desired.
Problem is, there are different thoughts as to what Zimmerman should do.
Dusty Baker thinks the 32-year-old needs to be more aggressive instead of employing a selective approach. Last season, Baker showed Zimmerman some old scouting charts compiled when he managed the Reds that detailed the same vulnerable spots in his swing and pitches in certain counts that present-day pitchers were using to thwart Zimmerman with ease. If the scouting report isn’t changing, Baker surmises, the hitter had better.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s second baseman Daniel Murphy, Zimmerman’s next-door neighbor in the Nationals spring training clubhouse. Taking note of Zimmerman’s exit velocity off the bat, Murphy wonders how much more effective Zimmerman could be as a hitter if he were to get a little more lift and carry on the balls he strikes.
“All these guys think I’m crazy, but I want them all to hit the ball in the air - optimally about 25 degrees at 98 miles an hour,” Murphy said. “Those are home runs. Ryan’s exit velocity last year - I’ve read articles on it - was borderline elite. So he’s just looking at, if I can take the already elite skill of bat to ball and exit velocity off the barrel, but get it at the right angle, now we’re really starting to do some serious damage. So I’m excited to see how he works this year, because he hit the ball extremely hard last year. It’s really hard to hit the ball on barrel in this league. He’s already doing the hard part.”
Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs.com wrote in December that Zimmerman ranked 32nd in air exit velocity at 94.3 mph. So was he hitting into bad luck or just into the wrong place on the diamond? Or at a less effective angle?
Regardless, Zimmerman was still hitting the ball hard with regularity. In Murphy’s eyes, that’s cause for hope.
But exactly how does a hitter achieve a greater launch angle?
“Try to hit the bottom of the ball,” Murphy said. “You just focus on the bottom of the ball and try to get on plane. That gets it in air. I read FanGraphs a lot. I’m kind of a geek. Guys are starting to try to get the ball in the air. It’s cool because with all the data we have now, we’ve kind of been given some of the answers to the test. If you get it at this certain launch angle at this exit velocity, it’s damage. So for me, personally, I try to practice that. Off the tee, front toss, pretty much any time I hit the ball, I want to get it in the air.”
Perhaps that explains Murphy’s seven-homer, 11-RBI assault in the postseason for the Mets in 2015, and how he carried over the approach to produce a career year in his inaugural season in D.C. in 2016, finishing second in the National League in hitting at .347 and posting the NL’s best slugging percentage (.595) and OPS (.985) en route to a second-place finish in the Most Valuable Player balloting.
As he begins to prepare in earnest for the season, Zimmerman is at least willing to listen to his spring training lockermate - with a caveat.
“I think analytics and all that stuff is useful,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think it’s the tell-all. I think it’s very useful when you take that information when it’s given to you and, as a person, kind of interpret it, I guess. I think the combination of a good baseball person and statistics or analytics ... is a good combination. Some people don’t like it at all. Some people completely rely on it. I think I would say (I’m) sort of right in the middle.”
For Zimmerman, the newfangled statistical metrics are another potential tool in the hitter’s toolbox.
“You can use it as much or as little as you want, but I think when it’s used the right way, it can obviously be helpful now that we’ve had a good amount of years to use it,” he said. “Before, when it happens, it was so brand-new, you had nothing to compare it to so you really didn’t know. Now you have five or six years of it to kind of compare it to years past.”
He’s intrigued with the concept of learning how to better elevate the ball, even if he’s not quite sure how to accomplish that goal.
“It’s a good question,” Zimmerman said. “You work on it. You don’t want to completely change your swing, but I think it’s more of a mindset than anything. For us, it’s the same thing (as) runner on third with less than two outs: You’re trying to get the ball in the air. I don’t completely swing differently or change when I’m trying to do that, it’s more of just an approach or mindset.”
Zimmerman is quick to point out that good hitters are adept at adjusting on the fly.
“That’s what we’re kind of supposed to do, and that’s why this is one of the hardest games,” he said. “We have to do that pitch by pitch in 20 seconds. This is a game of adjustments, and the ones that can make them the easiest are the ones that are usually around the longest and usually succeed the most.”
In discussing how difficult it is for hitters to do the same thing for any lengthy stretch, Zimmerman talked about two shortstops with widely varying approaches: former Yankee Derek Jeter, who hit .300 or better for 12 of his 20 major league seasons without changing his swing all that much, and longtime Oriole Cal Ripken Jr., a two-time MVP who won eight Silver Sluggers while changing his stance as frequently as most players change their socks.
“Very rarely do people stay the same their entire career,” Zimmerman said. “Jeter, I guess, kind of was the same pretty much. Kinda do the same thing every year and hit .300, and that’s kind of what it was and who he was. But you look at a lot of guys, and once they get into their young and mid-30s, almost a lot of those guys start hitting a lot of home runs. ... It has to do with hitting the ball in the air more, you get a little stronger at knowing what you can do, you know what pitches you can handle better. A lot of it’s just experience and going up there with a plan and sticking to that plan. (Ripken) was a new stance every day, but his approach was the same. The stances were more of a comfortability thing, but when the ball was on the way, he was always in the same spot.
“It’d be nice to be those two names.”
For now, Zimmerman feels like he’s starting with a clean slate. After all, his spring training is only a couple of days old.
“I think (I should) go out, use down here getting ready to play and make a few adjustments here and there,” he said. “And go from there. I don’t think you completely change anything, but this is obviously a game of adjustments and if you don’t make adjustments, you get passed by. You take what you got, the information, and kind of look at some stuff. That’s what we’re down here for.”
He’ll listen to Baker and discuss hitting with Murphy and other teammates. Hitting coach Rick Schu and assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones will weigh in. And then there will be the own tweaks that Zimmerman thinks are appropriate.
“I’ve got a lot of people telling me what to do, huh?” Zimmerman said.