- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2017

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Failure brings advice from all comers. The manager is certain to give it. The runner-up for National League MVP has provided some. Surely season-ticket holders, clubhouse attendants, the postal worker and a neighbor would have ideas, too.

This is what happens when a player hits .218 in the same season he turns 32 years old. Suggestions are predictable after five consecutive seasons with a declining OPS. Just ask Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

“Got a lot of people telling me what to do,” Zimmerman said with a laugh.

Zimmerman remains the Nationals’ starting first baseman and good-natured. Suggest to him that he is now a restaurateur after becoming a co-owner of a new restaurant near Nationals Park, and he will shake off the notion. He showed up early for spring training — beating many pitchers to the Nationals’ new complex in West Palm Beach — and often walks around in a “Fwahhh” T-shirt celebrating Daniel Murphy’s nonsensical term for celebration.

But, this is about production and how to increase it. Only Ryan Howard’s .196 average last season was worse than Zimmerman’s .218 among National League first baseman with at least 100 at-bats. He leaned on exit velocity to stave off maximum frustration and show that he was hitting the ball hard. It just wasn’t producing hits.

There is some merit to that. Zimmerman’s career batting average on balls in play is .309. His .248 average last season in that category was the worst of his career.

Though his strikeout rate was a career high and walk rate a career low. A flip came in the postseason. Zimmerman hit .353 with a .921 OPS in the National League Division Series. His production across five games against one of the league’s best pitching staffs — in a series tilted for maximum use of Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen — gave Zimmerman an end-of-season jolt. Though, it did not undo the season-long struggle.

Now in the Florida sun, the advice comes. Nationals manager Dusty Baker pulled out old scouting reports from when he was with the Cincinnati Reds to show Zimmerman their strategy. The book on Zimmerman, Baker said, is that he takes early in the count. Baker implored him to be more aggressive.

“It’s hard to hit 0-1, 0-2,” Baker said. “Everybody talks about getting deep in the count and sometimes it just makes them deeper in the count. One of the secrets to hitting is not letting the opposition know when you’re going to swing at the first pitch. If they see you start swinging at the first-pitch fastball in the zone, they may start changing their thought process.”

The locker next to Zimmerman in spring training is occupied by Daniel Murphy. He delivered a launch angle/exit velocity dissertation last week while sipping yellow fluid from stumpy jars in order to maximize hydration. Here’s what Murphy thinks: If you pull the ball in the air, power numbers go up. He’s living proof.

“All these guys think I’m crazy but, I want them all to hit the ball in the air,” Murphy said. “Optimally about 25 degrees at 98 miles an hour. Those are home runs. Ryan’s exit velocity last year — I’ve read articles on it — was borderline elite. So he’s just looking at, if I can take the already elite skill of bat-to-ball and exit velocity off the barrel, but get it at the right angle, now we’re really starting to do some serious damage. So I’m excited to see how he works this year, because he hit the ball extremely hard last year. It’s really hard to hit the ball on barrel in this league. He’s already doing the hard part.”

Murphy contends a hitter should be hunting the bottom half of a ball. Considering he is trying to do this against players who throw at least 95 mph with stunning control and secondary pitches, it feels like telling someone to fly by flapping their arms.

Zimmerman understands the idea. He balances measurements with mindset. Zimmerman equated accomplishing the ambition of lift to when there is a runner on third base with less than two outs. The hitter wants a fly ball to the outfield. Same concept.

“I think the analytics and all that stuff is useful,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t think it’s the tell all. I think it’s very useful when you take that information that’s given to you and as a person interpret it. I think the combination of a good baseball person and analytics is a good combination. Some people don’t like it at all. Some people completely rely on it. I think I’m sort of right in the middle.

“You can use it as much or as little as you want. I think when you use it the right way, it can be helpful. Now that we’ve had a good amount of years to use it. Before, it was so brand new, you had nothing to compare it to, so you didn’t really know. Now you’ve had five or six years of it and kind of compare it to years past and what’s going on now.”

Baker, forever an optimist, has pointed to Zimmerman as his “pick to click” this season. Zimmerman began live hitting Monday at spring training, searching for subtle adjustment and flooded with advice. Hit it early, in the air, at 98 mph. That’s all.

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