Loath as they would be to hear it, advanced statisticians can’t tell the whole of some baseball stories, and Ryan Zimmerman’s is one of them.
The stunning first-half resurgence that made Zimmerman the starting first baseman for the National League on Tuesday in Miami can be explained, in part, by exit velocity. His, around 113.1 mph, is still in the top 10 in baseball.
But that resurgence cannot be fully understood without recognition of a different type of exit velocity — the speed with which Zimmerman, a Washington National and one of the steadiest stars in baseball for nearly a decade, plummeted toward irrelevance and an uncertain future with three injury riddled seasons.
Zimmerman’s offensive turnaround can also be explained, in part, by launch angle. His is currently at 7.9 degrees, though that has dropped somewhat from earlier in the season, when it had improved to around 13 degrees during his early surge.
Certainly, that statistic explains why more of Zimmerman’s hard-hit balls were falling in this season. But another launch angle, just as telling, is the one at which this first half sent Zimmerman’s career back into realm of the elite. A pitching wedge could not have provided a greater change in trajectory.
“It’s been really exciting for us, and more than anything, it’s been nice to see Ryan realize that he truly hasn’t reached the end of his career,” Zimmerman’s wife, Heather, said. “I think that because of the rough past couple of years he’s had, people were starting to be convinced that his glory days were behind him. Of course, that’s going to make a player feel the same way. It’s been really exciting for him to actually be playing like he used to play in ’05, ’06, ’07, and it’s really brought new excitement around our household, too.”
That word — household — provides important context. Zimmerman didn’t have a household the first time he was an all-star, when he was 24 years old in 2009. He wasn’t married then, and didn’t have kids. By all accounts, he was practically still a kid himself.
But this season, he and Heather welcomed their second child. He has two girls now, the older of whom is 3½, old enough to see her father on TV and predict his home runs, the younger of whom has no idea what it all means, but claps and cheers when everyone else does anyway.
“It’s just a different path. Back then I was still young and at the beginning of my career. Then the whole middle of my career was,” Zimmerman said, pausing to choose his words, “interesting for me. So to get back to that point where I was, that’s pretty cool.”
This emphatic resurgence has come while Zimmerman, set up well for some time by his $135 million extension in 2012, already a beloved figure in the community, no longer the brightest star on his own team, settled into fatherhood.
Such comfortable circumstances do not seem likely to inspire a heated crusade against those omnipresent haters. But Zimmerman never let this season be about them anyway. At least he never said so.
“Although he’s got that smile on his face all the time, I think he had a little chip on his shoulder. I think he was a little [ticked] at some people,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “This was a guy who for six or seven years was one of the best in the league, a top 15 player for a long, long time, and people just abandoned ship on him. I felt like I couldn’t do that.”
Manager Dusty Baker has joked about those people who abandoned Zimmerman more than once.
“How many of you wanted me to bench him last season?” Baker has asked on more than one occasion, smirking all the while, though those questions were statistically defensible when Zimmerman finished last year with a .218 batting average that would have been second worst in baseball had he played enough to qualify.
“People like you a lot more when you’re doing well. You find out who your real friends are,” Zimmerman said. “The organization never lost faith in me. A lot of people were saying not that I was done, but that I’d maybe never get back to the player I used to be. Any time anybody ever said that, Mike Rizzo put his neck out there for me. I think a lot of people in the organization did as well.”
Zimmerman will always mean more to the Nationals organization than he will outside of it. He’ll never be, and never was, a Bryce Harper-type star with worldwide acclaim. He isn’t even like a Buster Posey or Anthony Rizzo, stars as loved in their cities as around the game, in the upper tier of jersey sales each summer.
So much of Zimmerman’s value goes beyond the statistics and into sentiment. He was the first star here, in the years when — as he put it — nobody, from players to fans and beyond, knew what to do. He will always be Mr. National, the guy who was there as a 100-loss team transformed into one that could win 95 and still disappoint.
“For me to win [the all-star nod] over a guy like Rizzo and the Cubs fans, not to say anything bad about [them], but I think it just shows you how much our fan base has grown in five to six years,” Zimmerman said. “As we’ve become a better team, we’ve kind of grown up together.”
So perhaps one could say the most telling statistic of Zimmerman’s season is distance traveled. The last time Zimmerman headed to an All-Star Game, he was a single kid on a 100-loss team that won 59 games that season. This time, he and his wife left their two kids at home and flew down to Miami after the Nationals won their 52nd game of the season Sunday.