When Ryan Zimmerman is Miguel Cabrera

Look at this nonsense:

zimmerman-inside-home-run

I should probably explain this nonsense: That’s Ryan Zimmerman. He’s swinging at a pitch from Jacob deGrom. As you can tell, that’s Zimmerman making contact with a pitch from Jacob deGrom. And that contact resulted in a dinger. It put the Nats up in the first inning. Washington wouldn’t score again. They’d win anyway.

It can be hard to write about baseball early in the season. So much of what gets written tries to use stuff observed in small samples in an attempt to figure out what’s going to happen the rest of the way. I do it myself. This isn’t that. This is just, whoa, weird dinger. Forget what Zimmerman’s future holds. Let’s talk about this home run, and Zimmerman’s present and past. Because, I mean:

zimmerman-inside-home-run2

This means something.

What’s immediately obvious is the pitch was inside. The pitch followed the target, which was in, although, granted, a little bit lower. From the Nationals’ broadcast, as the pitch was being delivered:

There’s that inside target. I mean way in there.

What’s more difficult to tell is just how far in the pitch really was. The camera angle is off-center, and Zimmerman probably hit the ball out in front of the plate. The thin yellow line is meant to be some indication. This pitch was somewhere within Zimmerman’s batter’s box. He’s supposed to be alone in there. Pitches that end up in occupied batter’s boxes tend to be pitches that, at the very least, cause a batter to flinch. If anything, they’re balls — not homers.

Even without looking at PITCHf/x, here’s an easy conclusion: The pitch was more than a foot inside from the center of the plate. Home plate is 17 inches wide, meaning, to each side, from the center, it extends 8.5 inches. What’s 3.5 more inches? This pitch cleared that, by far. Now that we didn’t look at PITCHf/x, let’s look at PITCHf/x. I’m showing you a small table. These are right-handed hitters, and home-run totals, since 2010, against pitches at least a foot inside from being right down the middle:

Player Home Runs
Miguel Cabrera 21
Ryan Zimmerman 17
Delmon Young 7
Matt Holliday 7
Michael Young 6
Nelson Cruz 6

It’s a two-man race. I know this is a counting stat, not a rate stat, and we usually traffic in rate stats, but this is also a very trivial category. Allow me the simplicity. Miguel Cabrera has proven himself a master of the home run on pitches way in. Zimmerman is also there. Since Cabrera last hit one of these, Zimmerman has hit four, trimming the gap in half. Throw inside to Cabrera, and you might still give up a dinger. The same is true for Zimmerman. He’s obviously not as fearsome a hitter overall, but in this way he and Cabrera are alike.

Speaking of PITCHf/x, let’s use it a little more. Using Baseball-Savant, I identified the most inside pitches that righties hit for home runs. From there, I cross-checked with Brooks Baseball, where the numbers get corrected for various errors. Since 2008, here are the top three:

  • 1.80 feet from center of plate

francoeur-inside-home-run

  • 1.79 feet from center of plate

cabrera-inside-home-run

  • 1.78 feet from center of plate

zimmerman-inside-home-run

It’s that close. We’ve got Jeff Francoeur, who you can tell from the blurry screenshot because of the teeth. We’ve got Cabrera, hitting a home run that caused his teammates and coaching staff to flip out because they thought it was unbelievable. And we’ve got Zimmerman, against deGrom, Wednesday evening in the nation’s capital. Between first and third, it’s a difference of two-tenths of one inch, which has to be well within the data’s margin of error. There’s no difference between these. Zimmerman’s home run is more or less tied for the most inside homer hit by a righty in the PITCHf/x era. The pitch was that inside. It might not have been all the way that inside where Zimmerman made contact — out in front — but you see the significance.

You might also quickly see the explanation. Half of it, at least, the other half being “Zimmerman is good.” Look at where Cabrera’s hands are. Now look at Zimmerman. He’s a little more extended. Francoeur’s standing around the middle of the box. Cabrera’s standing around the middle of the box. Zimmerman, by comparison, stands farther from the plate. It’s a matter of inches, but everything is a matter of inches, and Zimmerman always gives himself a lot of space between his body and the strike zone. So that means a pitch that’s inside for a pitcher isn’t so inside to Zimmerman. This is the stuff PITCHf/x doesn’t capture.

For Zimmerman, a pitch inside and off the plate is a lot like a pitch that’s inside and over the plate for a normal righty. You can see this reflected in his swing patterns:

zimmerman-swing-chart

What follows, then, if you figure Zimmerman will be good over and beyond the inner part of the plate? His stance might leave him a little vulnerable against the outer part. This is shown by his run-value chart:

zimmerman-raa-chart

You also get an idea of what’s going on by just looking at Zimmerman’s plot of home runs, from Baseball Savant:

zimmerman-home-runs

Lots of dingers way inside. Plenty of dingers over the inner half. Then things thin out. There’s nothing happening low and away, but, in fairness, there usually isn’t for any right-handed hitter. And it’s not like Zimmerman is in the proving-himself stage. We know this works. A 120 wRC+. Thirty years old. Everyone’s got their vulnerabilities, and for Zimmerman’s part, he’s always been pretty good about being able to hit to all fields. He can go out to right, he can go out up the middle, he can very clearly turn on a pitch in and blast it out to left or left-center.

Ryan Zimmerman hits these weird home runs in part because he’s excellent. He also hits them in part because he stands unusually far from the plate, which is a variable that’s typically pretty easy to ignore given that home plate and the strike zone never move. Pitchers have to work with that zone, and Zimmerman has figured out where he has to be to make that zone work best for him. I don’t know what he’s going to do from here on out. This post isn’t about a projection. It’s about how Zimmerman and Cabrera do something better than everyone else. And while Cabrera’s out in front, Zimmerman has been catching up.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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BMac
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BMac

Watching the replay of the at-bat, it just felt like a stupid pitch to me. I am surprised to see how far inside it was, so perhaps not all that stupid.

It seemed like Zimmerman was ripe for the picking and would have chased something, so why a purpose pitch? And don’t the Mets know about his ability to handle inside pitches? Or does d’Arnaud call his own game?

I guess defense is not really the problem when you lose 2-1, but still…