May 22, 2009
You Could Look It Up
Even the most miserable teams can have star players. There never was a "free Wally Berger" from the Braves campaign in the 1930s, but there should have been. Carlos Beltran could have been that player for the Royals, unappreciated with a non-contender, but a 2004 trade followed by free agency allowed him the relative luxury of being unappreciated with a contender in New York. Now it's Ryan Zimmerman's turn, as the young third baseman has grabbed the spotlight in Washington with a 30-game hitting streak (April 8-May 12) for a team that might not just be bad but historically bad-even during his streak, the team won just 10 games. A career .282/.341/.462 hitter coming into this season, at this writing Zimmerman is batting .358/.416/.624. Even though the hitting streak has come to an end, he shows no signs of letting up, batting .320 with two home runs in over a week's worth of games since. Previous seasons established him as a competent but unspectacular player. This edition of Zimmerman is a star. The question for the hapless Nationals, who have him signed through 2013, is if the change is for real, and if he is, finally, the kind of player they can build around.
When considering Zimmerman, it's easy to remember that prior to this season he was a high first-round pick who hasn't quite lived up to advanced billing-he was taken fourth overall in the 2005 draft, behind Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, and Jeff Clement, and one pick ahead of Ryan Braun-but it's much easier to forget that he reached the majors at 20, was a regular at 21, and is now just 24. Zimmerman grew up in public. It is also easy to forget that after substantially similar seasons in 2006 and 2007, he cheated us and himself last year by injuring his shoulder making an ill-considered headfirst slide. He had been off to a poor start, so the injury froze his numbers at .257/.291/.421 from May 25 to July 21, a span of 48 games. When Zimmerman returned, he took a small but significant step forward, batting .306/.370/.455 over the 56 games remaining to him. His power production was not at the level he has shown this year, with just six home runs in 222 at-bats, but the numbers make for convincing stage-setting (including the team's 18-38 record in those games).
Despite the season-ending surge, the totality of his production was unimpressive. He hit .283/.333/.442 in 106 games, numbers simultaneously of a piece with his previous two seasons, and his worst yet relative to the league. As a direct result, when evaluating his possibilities for the 2009 season, Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA forecasting system voted for a weighted mean projection of .289/.358/.471, or effectively more of the same. It did allow for the possibility of a breakthrough, giving Zimmerman a 10 percent chance of batting .315/.391/.530 or better on the season. He's exceeding this top-line projection now, often a sign that at some point in the future the player will see his numbers drop. That said, the inevitable focus on his unspectacular consistency to this point also camouflages his relative youth and his place on the aging curve. Aging for Zimmerman is a good thing, one of the few times a ballplayer can say that, because he's still years away from his age-27 season, just entering into a standard peak range in his age-25 through -29 seasons.
If Zimmerman is exceeding the true level of his abilities-and if he continues at this level, he would not only have enjoyed his best season, but one of the best seasons recorded by a third baseman at any time in history-the question is, by how much is he doing so? The numbers are equivocal, suggesting some real improvement, but also some luck. In his rookie year, 24 percent of the balls he hit were line drives smacked into play. This rate decreased during the next two seasons, along with his patience at the plate. This season, he's back to a 24 percent line-drive rate, and, not coincidentally, his batting average on balls in play has shot up to .383. That last is a very high rate of success-the league average is around an even .300-and suggests a good deal of luck at work, the real-world equivalent of seeing-eye hits. The other interesting kicker to Zimmerman's numbers is that a greater percentage of his fly balls are traveling over the fences, 13.3 percent of them so far; his previous high, registered in 2007, was 9.6 percent. He is now hitting the ball with greater authority or a greater tailwind. At this stage of the season, it is difficult to say which.
Still, even if he is due for regression, the numbers suggest a changed approach, and perhaps more confidence as well. Zimmerman told MASN that, having finished 2008 with a flourish, he was able to spend the offseason working out and maintaining an "upbeat mood" instead of worrying about his health. That focus may now be paying dividends. If he fades, there are still levels of production well below his current numbers that are good enough to reap annual MVP votes-.300/.370/.500 would be terrifically valuable; this year, the average third baseman is batting .267/.337/.427, while last year they batted .266/.336/.436. Zimmerman doesn't have to slug .600 to leave the field in the dust.
If his current numbers aren't all real, they don't have to be-merely "mostly real" would be good enough, and at present there is no reason to discount them completely. His glove was already quite good, his bat was passable, and age is on his side. He was never one of the Nationals' problems, but he's clearly among their solutions going forward.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .