PHILADELPHIA — Ryan Zimmerman can say it now, in part because it is over, in part because he is now certain things can be better.
“I had a bad year last year,” Zimmerman said. “I appreciate all the help. All the ‘he hit the ball hard and didn’t get anything for it.’ The truth is, I didn’t have a very good year.”
In 2016, plagued by nagging injuries and the related inability to reap the benefits of consistent at-bats, Zimmerman was one of the worst statistical hitters in baseball. His .218 average got about as much attention as the average exit velocity with which he achieved it. How could someone hit the ball so hard, for so little success? The answer, said Statcast disciples, was launch angle. Zimmerman’s swing is built to come down on the ball, so his launch angle was not what statistics say is optimal. If only he could combine exit velocity like that with a higher launch angle, the thinking went, Zimmerman would look like his old self again.
Except Zimmerman’s old self never included an uppercut, his career built on a swing with more moving parts than most, one in which his hands often come down through the ball, rather than up to it. Sunday, as he launched a game-tying, pinch-hit homer to left, Zimmerman hardly dropped his shoulder to create launch angle. Instead, he met a high pitch in its plane, much as he always has, and drove it high in the air.
“If there’s a runner on third and less than two outs, you don’t have a different swing for that situation,” Zimmerman said earlier this weekend. “It’s a different mind-set.”
In other words, the key to Zimmerman’s hot start — a .333 average with three homers in six games — is not a consciously altered launch angle.
What has helped, said hitting coach Rick Schu in his usual baseball jargon, is Zimmerman “staying stacked.” When a hitter is “stacked,” his body is together, core above his legs, head in line with his body, not diving or dipping or getting one part of the chain ahead of the others. For Zimmerman, who has an upright stance and uses lots of motion to bring himself into the hitting position, staying stacked is not always a given.
“We do some drills for posture and stuff, so he doesn’t get bent over, or start diving,” Schu said. “Just trying to keep him upright and working downhill. When he dives, he doesn’t see the ball, and he really fights his hands. He doesn’t drive the ball middle-oppo[site] like he usually does, and has a hard time hitting the ball middle-in. When he’s staying stacked and behind the ball, his power’s that way, and he hits the breaking ball to left field.”
Zimmerman dived too often last year, something he says brings an added complication of siphoning the backspin that gives him his characteristic power to center and right. When he dives at pitches and hits them the opposite way, they slice. When he stays tall, they fly, much like the opposite field home runs he hit in the first week of the season.
Schu also echoed something Dusty Baker pointed to many times this spring. Zimmerman is more aggressive within at-bats, more willing to hit early in the count than he did at times last year, when it seemed he always found himself in two-strike counts, then fought himself trying to fight them off. This season, he has seen 3.64 pitches per plate appearance, second-fewest of any Nationals hitter. Sunday, he hit the first strike he saw all afternoon out to left for that game-tying homer.
“I think he’s been aggressive, attacking early,” Schu said. “I think he wants to prove to everyone that he’s still the man — and he is.”
Zimmerman rested until that pinch-hit chance Sunday, part of Baker’s plan to keep his oft-injured first baseman fresh and in the middle of his lineup. Baker favors Zimmerman in the heart of the order, believing the 32-year-old to be a natural “RBI man,” something new-school stats guys tend to dismiss as an antiquated description. So far, Zimmerman has been a strong presence behind Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, the kind of hitter who has squandered a few RBI chances, but cashed in others.
Where exactly Zimmerman hits in this lineup seems to matter less to his and the Nationals’ offensive success than that he hits in it at all. As he battled injuries over the years, Zimmerman would sit out, lose his timing, then spend a few weeks trying to find it. Once he did, he would get hurt, and the cycle would repeat.
To a man, everyone points to Zimmerman’s strong start not as some kind of career resurgence, but as evidence of what Zimmerman is when he is healthy long enough to be himself. If the first week of the season is reliable evidence — and sometimes it isn’t — Zimmerman is still capable of putting up the kind of numbers he made look automatic for the first decade of his career. The Nationals just need him to stay on the field to do it.