When the Washington Nationals were in Baltimore last week, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper walked off the Camden Yards field from batting practice together. A few kids above the dugout called to Harper, who disappeared with a wave. Then they called to Werth, who did the same.
The young fans didn’t call to Zimmerman, who headed down the tunnel to the cage with a small smile. He was hitting .420 at the time, better than either teammate, and better than he has hit in three years — if not ever.
Young Nationals fans might not remember the days when Zimmerman was the team’s biggest star. If he keeps hitting like he has this season, they will get to know him soon.
Zimmerman has changed the conversation with a start so impressive he won National League player of the month for April and is leading the NL in a handful of offensive categories in May. He is hitting .385 and slugging .792, leading the league in both categories. His reemergence after a dismal 2016 season gives the Nationals a lineup that many in the clubhouse and organization say is the most potent they have ever had.
Life at first base is different for Zimmerman these days. Base runners used to arrive and exchange pleasantries, but recently their curiosity overpowers courtesy, compelling them to ask how exactly is he doing what he’s doing.
“I don’t know man,” he tells them. With all due respect, he would rather not talk about it.
Besides, the secret is so simple it almost defies credulity: He is healthy, which is what he said it would take all along. Thus rejuvenated, the 32-year-old has batted away the question of whether he still has it. The question now is how long he will keep it.
“I’m not going to hit .430,” Zimmerman said. “It’s one of those things where you want to keep it going as long as you can, sustain, and keep the routine.”
Even when they signed him to a $135 million contract, the Nationals did not expect Zimmerman to hit .430. They were counting on him to be the reliable .280, 20-home run face of the franchise. But for three seasons, injuries frequently kept the team’s longest-tenured player off the field and hampered him when he was on it.
“I’m proud of him,” said Werth, sitting at the locker next to Zimmerman’s as the first baseman handed away a few bats for charity and grabbed his own before heading to the cage.
“He has dealt with a lot the last few years: just health, staying healthy,” Werth continued. “He’s kind of fallen into some traps on recurring, kind of nagging injuries that are hard to overcome, especially as you get older. Not that he’s old, but he’s got a lot of miles on the tires.”
Zimmerman had played 1,137 games by the time he turned 28, 100th-most ever for players before their 28-year-old season. Werth, for reference, has played 1,544 at age 37. Zimmerman’s always-there dependability took an accumulated toll in the form of fluky injuries and nagging ones.
He battled plantar fasciitis the past two years, and oblique trouble ended his 2015 season. From 2014 to 2016, he averaged 90 games a season and batted .242. In the eight seasons prior, he averaged 140 games and hit .284.
“I think he just needed to stay healthy,” Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu said. “With him being healthy, it’s a lot easier to stay consistent.”
Consistency, not conversion, sparked Zimmerman’s renaissance. While stat heads could explain away last year’s .218 average by noting his exit velocity was elite but his launch angle wasn’t, Zimmerman found neither consolation nor cause for concern in the numbers.
Launch angle is a measurement of the vertical direction of the ball after it’s hit, while exit velocity is the speed with which the ball comes off the bat. When paired with a high enough exit velocity (typically 95 mph or higher), a ball struck at a launch angle of 25 to 40 degrees usually results in a home run.
After hearing the words “launch angle” for the umpteenth time this spring, Zimmerman wondered aloud if his latest home run — a low line drive to right center that did not meet the optimal geometric parameters — should count.
He did not reconfigure his swing to change his launch angle. He chuckled at the idea of what he would look like trying to hit the bottom of the ball.
Instead, Zimmerman did what he has all along in a career marked by streakiness: He trusted himself and trusted what got him here. As it happened, his launch angle improved anyway.
But Zimmerman is not so stubborn as to resist evolution. He has increased his commitment to staying healthy, trying not to protest when Manager Dusty Baker gives him a day off in the middle of a hot streak. He is working through drills designed to maintain his posture at the plate, his position before and at the point of contact.
At times last year, Zimmerman would dip, bend over and therefore render himself unable to hit outside pitches. Now he and Schu do drills to keep him upright, with his upper body firmly above his lower body, not leaning over — “stack and jack,” Schu calls it. The result has been a revival of Zimmerman’s opposite-field power, combined with better luck against off-speed pitches that used to catch him off-balance.
“Zim was always a guy you didn’t want to have extension, so it was a matter of throwing enough pitches in to where he thought he had to pull the ball” said Matt Wieters, who faced Zimmerman for eight years while with Baltimore. “But this year, he’s been able to hit that inside ball for power.”
Zimmerman’s heat charts show moderate success against the inside pitches this season. They show excellent results against pitches out over the plate, the ones on which he built his reputation. Some things, it seems, never change.
Zimmerman is a rarity in baseball, which is so fraught with fluctuation that it tests even the sturdiest of souls.
“You can depend on Zim to be Zim,” Baker said. “Never too high, never too low. He has that quiet confidence about him.”
For three years, Zimmerman answered questions about his health and his swing and his ability the same way: politely, and without wavering. If he could get healthy, he insisted quietly, he would be the same old Ryan Zimmerman again.
Cameras caught him swearing when a ball fell short of the fence at Marlins Park last season, but that was as much exasperation as anyone on the outside ever saw.
“Never here,” Zimmerman said. “. . . but, yeah, it was frustrating. I’m a pretty patient person, except for in traffic. I get really impatient in traffic.”
He said all the right things when speculation about his future swirled. Werth said that whatever Zimmerman says, however unemotional he seems, that kind of talk seeps in somehow.
“When you know what you’ve done and know what you can do, and you sit there and listen to people that have never done it say you’re washed up or you’re done or doubting you, if you have any competitive spirit inside you whatsoever, that would have to move you in some direction,” Werth said.
If it moved Zimmerman, it wasn’t the primary propulsion behind this season. He didn’t listen to talk radio as he worked out this winter, or read critical articles before lifting to inspire him further.
“I think it’s more pride than anything,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t really try to go out and prove anyone wrong. It’s not really that sort of mind-set for me. Seems a little intense for a game . . . .”
And there, in his priorities and sense of baseball’s relative magnitude, lies a key to Zimmerman’s resurgence.
The past three years, or the eight years before that, or the three years to come, were never going to define him, not in his mind, not in any meaningful way. Zimmerman always said — without agitation, without bravado — that if he were healthy, he would hit again. He has hit again and in so doing tipped a dislodged pillar of these Nationals back into place.