After being hit on the wrist by a pitch in San Francisco nearly two weeks ago, Ryan Zimmerman did two very un-Ryan Zimmerman things: The Washington Nationals’ mild-mannered, even-keeled, often inscrutable first baseman answered booing by removing his helmet and tipping it to the crowd. Then he made a few pointed waves to those fans who had been particularly insistent that he had not, in fact, been hit at all.
Zimmerman does not normally do things like that. But he did not normally have seasons like this one, either, until 2014, when injuries started becoming his unpleasant norm.
Shoulder trouble forced him from third base to first. Plantar fasciitis forced him to the disabled list in the middle of the 2015 season, which an oblique injury ended in September. Then, that pitch to the wrist sent Zimmerman back to the disabled list six days after he came off it.
“It’s really frustrating,” Zimmerman said at the time. “. . . This is the first time — well, not the first time, but I’m pretty upset about this.”
Have all these injuries changed him somehow? Perhaps more pressing to the team that will pay him through 2020, if they choose to pick up a team option for the final season: Are injuries and inconsistency at the plate his new normal?
“We want him to be the consistent performer that he’s always been. I think his health has a lot to do with that,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s not an old player. He’s a 31-year-old player. We hope and expect him to be a consistent middle-of-the-lineup contributor like he’s always been.”
One fluky injury, such as being hit by a pitch — the “helpless injuries,” as Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth called them — does not necessitate a referendum on a franchise pillar’s future. But when it sends him to the disabled list for the seventh time in six years, in the midst of a season in which he was hitting .222 through 80 games that had been played without any admitted nagging injury, it begs a closer look.
Is Zimmerman, who is idling at last in on-base-plus-slugging percentage among National League first baseman with at least 300 plate appearances, still capable of being the same player he always was?
During healthier times, everyone could count on Zimmerman for a .280 average and 25 homers the same as they could count on Teddy to lose the Presidents’ Race. It had to change someday, right? But maybe it wouldn’t. Then suddenly, it did.
Zimmerman has a .236 average over the past two seasons, with a slugging percentage of .432. Both are second worst among NL first basemen in that time. Are those numbers a sign of declining skills or a product of jumping on and off the disabled list too often to find rhythm?
“I see the bat speed, the head speed going through the zone is the same. The exit velocities were consistent with what he’s done,” Rizzo said. “Analytics say he was an unlucky hitter — BABIP was way below his career norms. With the naked eye, he had the bat speed and the strength to be the same hitter he always has been. It’s unfortunate he can’t get consistent time in the lineup where he can get a comfort level.”
Rizzo is correct: Zimmerman’s BABIP — batting average on balls in play — this season (.247) is more than 60 points below his career average. The average exit velocity of balls he puts in play ranks seventh among major leaguers with enough of a sample size to merit consideration, according to BaseballSavant.com, which tracks measurements made by MLB’s StatCast.
The worse news? He has struck out at a higher rate and walked at a lower rate over the past two seasons than he has for most of his career but not by much. More of his contact has gone for groundballs than in most years past and less for line drives. This season, he was swinging at a greater percentage of pitches thrown him than in any season since 2008, making contact with fewer of them than he has before. This season, he was swinging and missing more often, too.
It’s arguable that those are the numbers of a player trying to hit his way out of a slump. It’s also arguable that they are the numbers of a hitter unable to trust his hands the way he once did, who is jumping at pitches more than he used to as a result. Time will tell, but Zimmerman’s stance is clear.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt. I think once you start [doubting], it’s time for ‘see ya later,’ ” Zimmerman said. “I think if you look at everyone’s career that’s lucky enough to play for 10, 15 years or whatever you want to call it, very rarely is there a year or two where they don’t perform like they usually perform. . . . The guys who don’t ever have those years are Hall of Famers.”
Typical Zimmerman answer: no panic, just perspective. He admitted that this year, marked by injuries and failures and the birth of his second child, has been “interesting.” But mind-changing? Depressing? Agonizing?
“I feel like I’ve always had a good perspective that baseball isn’t everything, I guess,” Zimmerman said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t want to succeed as much as anyone, work as hard as anyone, but it’s a game. . . .
“I don’t know if that’s because of my mom’s situation growing up,” he continued, referring to his mother’s longtime battle with multiple sclerosis. “I got introduced to real-life stuff maybe earlier than some people do, although most people have something.”
Werth says he sees the same guy he always has, “positive” and “upbeat.” Brodie Van Wagenen, Zimmerman’s agent from the time he was the Nationals’ first draft choice ever in 2005, said the University of Virginia product is the same “balanced” guy he always has been — but that everyone reaches a breaking point.
“He’s still a human being. Naturally, frustrations do come into play,” said Van Wagenen, who is co-head of CAA Sports’s baseball operation and played at Stanford. “This year, I think the frustration at moments can build up to the point that he’s able to talk about it a little bit more. . . . These injuries he’s experienced this year are frustrating because they’re not big, major injuries, but they’re taking him away from being able to do the consistent job he’s been able to do the rest of his career.”
Zimmerman has not played for 11 days. He generally does not need many at-bats to feel game-ready, but he has not been able to swing much since, and his return is not imminent. Which Ryan Zimmerman will return whenever he does?
The same one as before, one way or another.