“I’ll bet you the best dinner in Chicago at Joe’s Stone Crabs and Steaks that Zimmerman will hit at least .275 with 20 homers and 75 RBI,” Rizzo said.
“That won’t cost you much,” I said, “since you own part of that restaurant.”
Told of the Rizzo Proposition on Friday, Zimmerman pounced. “I’ll take that bet,” he said, making clear that he wanted the “over.”
“Zimmerman is my pick to click [this year],” Nats Manager Dusty Baker said.
When I arrived here this month, I considered Zimmerman the Nats’ biggest problem, worse than the absence of a proven closer. Last year, FanGraphs ranked him the second-worst player in baseball out of the 203 who reached 400 at-bats. Such a huge negative-value anchor at first base, a premium power position, can help sink the whole boat.
Zimmerman is one of the proudest, most self-confident and, thus, often most stubborn players I’ve met. During dozens of hard times, he’s said, “Ride it out. Trust yourself. The hot streak will come.” In baseball, that’s usually a good quality. But, as you age, it can kill a career. I’ve waited years to hear the following words.
“Everyone says we are creatures of habit, but this is the sport where you are asked to change more than any other sport — sometimes pitch-to-pitch,” said Zimmerman. “And if you don’t, you die.”
This season, you will see a significantly altered Zimmerman, certainly in his mental approach to hitting, but also with changes to a complex swing that he is already tweaking and, he hopes, simplifying. For the organization’s original Face of the Franchise, it is a make-or-break career gamble, the kind that terrifies athletes — especially because Zimmerman is changing on multiple fronts at once. If it works, it’ll be as if the Nats got back a bonus player. If it fails, then what’s next? Don’t ask.
He has discussed and worked with Daniel Murphy and hitting coach Rick Schu on how to radically alter the launch angle of his swing from a horrific, worm-killing 7.9 degrees over the past two years to something like 15 degrees or higher.
“All these [Nats] think I’m crazy, but I want to hit the ball in the air [every time], optimally at about 25 degrees at 98 miles per hour. Those are home runs,” Murphy said Friday. “Ryan’s exit velocity last year was elite [14th in baseball, at 94.1 mph]. He’s just looking to take his already elite skill of putting bat to ball and [achieving high] exit velocity off the barrel and get it at the right angle. Now we’re really starting to do some serious damage.
“He hit the ball really hard last year. He’s already doing the hardest thing at the high end. I don’t think there needs to be big adjustments.”
So, what’s the biggest key to elevating launch angle? Probably CalTech-level quantum mechanics, right, Murph?
“You focus on the bottom of the ball,” he said.
“Hit the bottom of the ball.”
To Murphy, a lifelong obsessive student of hitting, the past two years have been “Eureka,” and he wants to spread the word. “I read FanGraphs a lot. I’m kind of a geek,” he said. “It’s cool because with all the data we’ve been given now, we’ve kind of been given some of the answers to the test.”
Imagine: The answer to the test of hitting.
“If you get it at this exit velocity at this launch angle, it’s ‘damage,’ ” Murphy said.
Can Zimmerman do it? He has the hand-eye coordination and the power to produce the exit velocity. Can he double the degree of his launch angle, to the David Ortiz-Jose Altuve-Murphy level, without making a mess of his swing and his mind?
Zimmerman has also talked to Baker about a second basic change. Always one of MLB’s most patient go-deep-in-the-count hitters, Zimmerman has noted a profound change in the game. Ten years ago, he could foul off pitches and “wait for a mistake.” Now, velocity is so much higher and so many hurlers have multiple two-strike wipe-out pitches that, instead of hunting for mistakes, the ultra-patient hitter may become the hunted — the strikeout victim. “It’s a different game,” Zimmerman said.
Could it help? How could it not, in Ryan’s case? In his career, for every 100 at-bats that have ended with zero strikes (0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0), Zimmerman has had 272 at-bats that ended with two (0-2, 1-2, 2-2, 3-2). That’s a high imbalance toward extreme patience. Yet in the zero-strike times at the plate, he has hit .348 with an on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.054. In two-strike counts, he has hit .201. The aggressive Murphy had a far different ratio last year: 203 plate appearances that ended in no-strike counts and only 270 that ended in two-strike counts.
Murphy’s front-foot-planted swing will always be one of MLB’s simplest, and the high-kicking Zimmerman will remain exotic. And Zimmerman will never finish his business as quickly as Murphy. But he may close the gap in both areas.
If his altered approach allows him merely to get back to being the hitter of 2013 (far from his best year) who hit .275 with 26 homers and 79 RBI , it lengthens an already first-rate lineup and ratchets up the team’s future for as many as four more years, since the Nats hold a team option for 2020.
“Zim’s not old, he’s not overweight and he’s not starting off the year with an injury,” said Baker, who added that improved aggressiveness early in the count should help Zimmerman hit with a better launch angle. “When you get behind in the count, you’re defensive,” Baker said. “Early in the count, you can try to get it in the air.”
Finally, Zimmerman thinks that the same tweaks that may improve his launch angle will also make him more of a pull hitter for power. That will ding his pride, because he always loved to show his opposite-field power. So be it. “I doesn’t matter which direction you hit ’em,” Zimmerman said. “Last year, [NL MVP] Kris Bryant only hit one of his home runs to the right of dead center field.”
Sometimes for a ballplayer, change is not a salvation, just the final disaster. But Zimmerman is fed up. “I have three years, maybe four years left,” he said. “Pride, more than anything, makes me want to hold up my end of the bargain [with the Nats].
“You don’t want to be that guy that has three bad years on the way out. And everyone talks about you that way [forever],” he said. “I’ve got a lot of mileage. It’s not an old car, but it’s been used a bunch.”
He’s not a junker yet.
“As much as I’ve [sometimes] said I despised them, analytics are a good source of information,” Zimmerman said. “Ten years ago, we didn’t know what ‘launch angle’ was. When you are presented with information that makes sense, you have to be willing to give it a try. You can’t just shut it out. Will it be easy?”
But what choice does he have?
“It’s pretty simple, actually. I didn’t finish school, but I had three years of college. I somewhat understand angles,” Zimmerman said wryly.
“You have to make changes. That’s life. Or you get passed by.”