You’ve probably heard that Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman is the best hitter in baseball right now. You’ve likely then heard the two immediate follow-ups: Wow, he stands out on a team with Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy; wow, he was really bad last year!
They’re kind of unfortunate qualifications, but they’re true. Zimmerman’s current success at the plate is made all the more interesting by its unexpectedness. After 96 plate appearances this season, Zimmerman is batting .420 (nice), has a .458 OBP, and is slugging .886, good for an astounding 1.345 OPS. That includes 11 home runs with 29 runs driven in.
Zimmerman leads the league in batting average, slugging, OPS, hits, total bases, home runs (he’s tied with Eric Thames), RBI, and extra-base hits. He sits immediately behind Mike Trout in offensive WAR, and right behind teammate Bryce Harper for total runs created.
With the loss of Adam Eaton for the season, Zimmerman’s success is all the more crucial for the Nats.
This is a long way from Zimmerman’s lost 2016 season, where he finished with a slash line of .218/.272/.370/.642, really one of the worst seasons in baseball for players who had regular-ish playing time last season.
According to Statcast, he was hitting the ball off the bat pretty damn hard last year—averaging 93 MPH in exit velocity—but was hitting very few of them at the angles at which Statcast has determined to most likely result in a hit. His overall batting average on balls on play was .248, though, indicating that some of the fault for his bad season falls to bad luck and good defense.
But the wild part about the 32-year-old Zimmerman’s resurgence is that he didn’t really do too much to change his swing during the offseason. He made a series of tweaks, had a couple changes in perspective, and they’ve served him pretty well.
He was coached by resident number-lover Daniel Murphy on the stats about his swing, who told him to focus on the launch angles of his hit—which comes down to focusing on hitting the bottom of the ball. Hitting coach Rick Schu reportedly helped him focus on “staying stacked,” i.e. his posture at the plate. And he’s simply tried to adapt to the modern game:
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.
Zimmerman’s fixes during the offseason were not as drastic as Jason Heyward rebuilding his swing entirely, but it’s working. His batting average on balls in play is up to .448, which will likely come down over the course of the season, but it points to things going right for Zimmerman when he does make contact.
The Nats have sprinted out of the gate to start the season, and appear an easy lock for a playoff spot, especially given the weak competition in the NL East. They’ll get a lot of attention this season, and Zimmerman looks on pace to regain his star status on a team loaded with them.