- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2016

Among Dusty Baker’s assessment strategies is the stealth pat. When encountering one of his players in the offseason, after their time of rest and into the start of their winter training, Baker will put out a hand in greeting, giving a test of the back, maybe a brush of the belly. The Washington Nationals manager is conducting an informal body-fat index test to obtain first hints about who remained in shape and who has increased intake levels from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

He was happy last weekend at Nationals Winterfest, where he saw a svelte Max Scherzer, an in-shape Stephen Strasburg and well-proportioned Tanner Roark.

“Tanner’s looking as suave as I’ve seen him,” Baker said. “He is! He was born big. I bet you go look at his birth certificate, he was probably an eight-, nine-pound baby.”

Baker eventually moved down his list to Ryan Zimmerman, a veteran in pursuit of a rebound. Zimmerman was nagged early last season by plantar fasciitis in his foot and throughout the year by an obstinate batting average. Zimmerman hit a lagging .218 during the worst season of his career. During his 12th season in the league, he began to learn what “exit velocity” meant, since it was one of the minimal personal bright spots at the plate last season. Zimmerman kept hitting the ball hard, a fact confirmed by eye and technology, but was left kicking around with an average near the dreaded Mendoza Line. Frustration was the enemy as much as curveballs and cut fastballs.

“Zim’s looking real good, too,” Baker said. “He’s so far ahead of last year because he had that foot [problem] going into spring training. I had to really program him, ask him how he was doing every day, start him out with two innings, three innings — you guys remember. See, he’s way ahead of where he was in spring training.”

There was one month of bliss for Zimmerman, a self-described “streaky” hitter. May brought a .262 average bolstered by seven home runs. He thought cautious early management of his foot had helped him to a strong second month of the season. But, May was a blip. During the next five months, Zimmerman hit the same amount of home runs as he did in May. The 15 total home runs were his fewest since 2011, when he had 395 at-bats. His numbers across the board had never been more meek. His .642 OPS was drastically below his .809 career OPS and the banner years of his career, when he was pushing toward .900. Zimmerman was last in the National League in OPS among first baseman.

“Last year was obviously a tough year for me,” Zimmerman said. “I expect more out of myself than I think anyone expects out of me. I was disappointed in what I did last year. But, that’s the great thing about baseball. That was last year and you can kind of move on.”

His contract is of note because it’s not short. The money, as salaries continue to rise, will become less and less of a factor, in general terms. It remains an issue for the Nationals, who have chosen cost-conscious options this offseason though they also made substantial offers to closers Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen. Zimmerman will make $14 million in 2017 and 2018 before receiving a raise to $18 million in 2019. The final year of his contract is a team option that would pay him $18 million in 2020, when he would turn 36 years old.

“I have three years and an option left on the contract that I signed,” Zimmerman said. “Plan on living up to that contract and performing like I’m supposed to perform.”

There are a few digits that suggest success could return.

The main one is exit velocity, a beloved new measurement to see how hard players are hitting the ball when putting it into play. Among those with at least 400 at-bats last season, Zimmerman was ninth in the major leagues in exit velocity. Some of the names in the top 10 with him include Giancarlo Stanton (27 home runs in 413 at-bats), Nelson Cruz (43 home runs in 589 at-bats) and Mark Trumbo (47 home runs in 617 at-bats). Powerful company.

His .353 average and .921 OPS in the National League Division Series provided a drop of solace for the wayward regular season.

“I think I ended the season strong last year,” Zimmerman said.

Those numbers were more in line with projections that would accompany his top-10 exit velocity. Still, there is little glaze to mask Zimmerman’s offensive reversal in 2016, his fifth consecutive season of OPS decline. He has three guaranteed remaining years on a contract that will become increasingly difficult to trade if his play continues to slide, making how fit he looked in the offseason a moot point.

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