PITTSBURGH — I entered the visiting Washington Nationals’ clubhouse at PNC Park with a theory in need of vetting earlier this week. I suspected the most likely explanation behind Ryan Zimmerman’s success this season was that he had joined the merry band of fly-ball revolutionaries.
I was suspicious because one of the early adopters, Daniel Murphy, is of course a teammate. I was suspicious that Zimmerman had changed something because he ranks as the game’s ninth-most valuable position player to date — ahead of early-season sensation Eric Thames, for example.
I was convinced that something dramatic had occurred because his setup looks different this season…
… than it did a year ago:
Moreover, his slugging-percentage heat maps (per swing) certainly have changed, as Zimmerman has expanded the area in which he does damage.
I felt quite certain Zimmerman would tell me that he made some dramatic change. But when I approached Zimmerman and asked him about his white-hot start to the season, he was nearly apologetic for not having a more interesting story behind his success.
“I feel like my swing is pretty much the same,” Zimmerman said. “Baseball is the game of adjustments, obviously. I make adjustments between every pitch. So to say you haven’t changed anything, I think, I don’t think anyone does not change anything… But it’s not like this offseason I went and completely remade my swing. If you looked at my swing and position, I would think it would be pretty much the same.
“Consciously, I am not trying to hit the bottom of the ball or any of that stuff. For me, I’m just trying to square it up.”
Zimmerman has talked often with Murphy about hitting, and with other teammates. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell reported on part of Murphy’s pitch to Zimmerman in February.
“Ryan’s exit velocity last year was elite,” [Murphy said]. “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.”
Those conversations did occur this spring, and Zimmerman’s average launch angle is up two degrees. But Murphy wouldn’t take credit for Zimmerman this week. And Zimmerman insists those conversations have not led to a dramatic mechanical or philosophical swing alteration.
“We’re teammates. We talk about hitting. That’s kind of what we do,” Zimmerman said. “I wish I had a better story that I started doing some crazy drill or started looking at video. But it’s really not a great story. It is what it is.”
Zimmerman’s batted-ball profile hasn’t changed dramatically. He’s hitting 1.12 ground balls for every fly ball this season compared to his career ratio of 1.23. His average launch angle has inched up from 7.9 degrees in 2015 to 9.0 degrees last season to 10.9 degrees this season. That’s evidence of something. Whether it’s evidence of buying into Murphy’s words, however, is unclear. Perhaps Zimmerman is merely being polite and attempting not to upset the Nats’ hitting staff by listening instead to his own teammate for advice instead.
Or perhaps two degrees of launch angle isn’t a big deal to Zimmerman, perhaps he doesn’t consider it a significant change even if it is leading to dramatically different results. Maybe Murhy is right and Zimmerman didn’t need to make a major change to angle or approach, just a subtle one. He was tied with Miguel Sano for 15th in average exit velocity last season at 92.3 mph.
Or perhaps this is just a healthy Zimmerman on the greatest hot streak of career, one which has been produced with an unsustainable .400 BABIP and his 31.0% HR/FB mark. Perhaps this is just baseball.
“I’m ready early, everything is on time… You have more time to manipulate and do whatever you want,” said Zimmerman of his experience at the plate a quarter through the season.
Zimmerman does believe there’s something that explains in large part what he has done the first quarter of the season. He believes that being healthy, being able to have the first normal, uninterrupted offseason of workouts is a significant factor. Zimmerman has not played more than 115 games in a season since 2013.
“To be able to do your routine consistently every day,” Zimmerman said. “It’s helped a lot.”
Zimmerman is a Virginia native, a productive of the University of Virginia, and lives near DC during the offseason. That makes it possible for him to work out with the Nationals’ strength-and-conditioning staff. On that topic, I asked him to address one other matter, about the record HR/FB ratios in the game the last two seasons. He believes it’s similar to why we see records broken every Olympics.
“I think it’s making these top-level athletes even better,” said Zimmerman of modern strength-and-conditioning science and practices. “We joke that we do this drug testing now, we get drugs out of the game, and it seems like every pitcher threw harder than they threw before.”
And now it seems like every hitter is hitting the ball further and more squarely than before. But unlike with Murphy or other swing converts like Josh Donaldson and J.D. Martinez, there isn’t a simple narrative for Zimmerman’s improvement. His answers, if he’s being completely candid, aren’t satisfying. He doesn’t consider himself part of the fly-ball, uppercut revolution. Or, at least, he doesn’t consider any adjust he made significant enough to have him qualify as a member. So we might need another way to explain Zimmerman. Perhaps it’s as simple as health, and a two-degree bump in launch angle.
Perhaps it’s a few little things adding up to a big thing.