- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Ryan Zimmerman played along during last season’s slog. His poor results were assuaged by exit velocity, a relatively new baseball analytics term that showed how hard balls were hit. Zimmerman often made hard contact. It just resulted in outs. When a former All-Star hits .218 in a season, he will latch-on to any streak of light in the darkness.

At spring training, Zimmerman’s locker was stationed next to Daniel Murphy’s in the back-corner housing for the team’s veterans and stars. Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper were also anchored there. Being next to Murphy led to conversations about exit velocity, launch angle and other mathematical parameters around hitting. Murphy is a self-professed hitting nerd who embraces every decimal point and tactic. Zimmerman listened to Murphy make the case to add more lift to his swing. He absorbed the information, then started spring in search of a balance of believing in the old way, listening to the new way and finding any way to produce again.

The season is just a week old, which those anchored in analytics will make clear is too small a sample size for conclusions, but Zimmerman’s start has made him appear rebooted. In the second game of the year, he hit an opposite-field home run. He came into Tuesday hitting .400 with three home runs and two doubles. His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is a Bondsian 1.284.

In more direct terms, “Zim’s hot” as Nationals manager Dusty Baker puts it.

Correct grousing about sample size can, at times, discount the value of avoiding piling on. If Zimmerman started slow, then whispers would grow to audible grumbles. His contract (it runs until 2020 and increases to $18 million annually in each of the final two seasons) and age (he is 32) would be attached to each comment with his last name in it. A good week, as brief as it is, can beat those things back.

It wasn’t just last year, either. Zimmerman has been on a three-season slide. His average has tumbled from .280 in 2014 (when he played just 61 games), to .249 and .218 last season. Each of those years Zimmerman has been injured and internally irritated.

“I don’t know if I ever lost confidence,” Zimmerman said. “It’s more frustration to not be able to be out there and continuously have things happen, whether it’s oblique, hamstring… Would be different if I didn’t work or didn’t do things. But, it’s frustrating when you do put the work in but still kind of get banged up all the time. It’s just about staying on the field and keeping consistent.”

Baker had insisted that Zimmerman be more aggressive. He felt his first baseman was letting hittable strikes zoom by in an attempt to manipulate the count. Baker’s argument was simple: See a good pitch, try to hit it.

Zimmerman has often been in beneficial counts during this first week of bliss. Of his 25 at-bats, he’s been in an even or positive count for 15 of those. Eight of his 10 hits have come in those counts. When he falls behind 1-2, Zimmerman is just 1-for-7 with five strikeouts.

“I feel good, obviously,” Zimmerman said. “For me, it’s just all about staying healthy and staying on the field and getting my work in. I feel like, if I can do that, I can still put up the numbers I can put up. The last few years have been frustrating. A lot of that’s been not consistently being able to stay on the field. This game is hard enough when you can’t play every day or you have to take a month off here or two or three weeks off here, it’s hard to get in a rhythm.”

A good start is counter to what typically happens in Zimmerman’s career. He is a .259 career hitter in March/April. The only month that he historically is worse comes in June, when his career average drops to .231. Zimmerman, an admitted streaky hitter, otherwise hovers near .300.

When addressing his opposite-field home run, Zimmerman was asked about his swing plane. He began to chuckle as the question was being delivered. It was a here-we-go-again with the analytics laugh. He does not discount the industry as a whole. That doesn’t mean his mental fatigue with the topic hasn’t reached a tipping point.

“Whatever those guys want to say, they can say,” Zimmerman said. “Whatever makes them have their job and whatever their computer says that’s never played baseball, they can say whatever they want. But… sure…. Yeah. Although that wasn’t a very high home run. That only counts as half a home run since it wasn’t high enough.”

He rounded all four bases and completion of the trip changed the scoreboard, so Zimmerman’s low but sufficient home run counted like any other. Maybe even more so considering what chatter would be like were he not hitting them already.

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