Ryan Zimmerman is so over it.
Over the past couple weeks, Zimmerman's locker has become something of a metrics mecca. One by one, a nonstop parade of inquiring minds has approached the Washington Nationals first baseman in search of answers that might help explain his extraterrestrial start to the 2017 season. The prevailing theory within the analytics community is that launch angle has something to do with it. That the primary difference between last year -- when he was one of the worst offensive players in the game -- and this year is almost entirely attributable to a slightly increased propensity to hit the baseball in the air instead of on the ground. One by one, Zimmerman has dismissed the inquisitors, laughing off the launch-angle theory and instead professing that the real secret to his success lies simply in the fact that, for the first time in forever, he's actually healthy. Finally, three hours before game time on a rainy Thursday afternoon in the nation's capital, the hottest hitter on the planet has reached his breaking point.
"I’m doing it on purpose," he says with a completely straight face, seated in front of his locker. "All offseason, I worked on hitting the ball one-eighth of an inch lower and it's totally paying off. I used lasers and computers, and every time I didn't hit it one-eighth of an inch lower, my bat blew up so that I had to get a new one. That's how I started to hit it one-eighth of an inch lower."
Believe it or not, the one-eighth of an inch that Zimmerman’s referring to is an actual number. Yep. Somebody somewhere took the time to figure out that over the first month or so of the season, the Nats' cleanup man was striking the baseball, on average, an eighth of an inch lower than he did last year (per ESPN’s Sports Science). That’s the equivalent of two stitches on a seam. As a result of that two-stitch deviation, his average launch angle had increased by almost four degrees, from 9.0 last year, to 12.7 this April. Zimmerman is aware of this because in the Statcast era, when you’re the hottest hitter on the planet, these kinds of facts have a way of finding you -- over and over and over again. Especially when people have reason to believe.
"I'm doing it on purpose. All offseason, I worked on hitting the ball one-eighth of an inch lower and it's totally paying off. I used lasers and computers, and every time I didn't hit it one-eighth of an inch lower, my bat blew up so that I had to get a new one." Ryan Zimmerman
It all started in February when Daniel Murphy outed his teammate. Murphy, a noted bat rat who finished second in the National League in hitting last year, revealed that he and Zimmerman had been chatting about launch angle. "Ryan’s exit velocity last year was borderline elite," said Murphy of Zimmerman, who last year batted just .218 despite hitting the ball harder than almost anyone in baseball (his average of 92.7 mph ranked third in MLB). "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."
Serious damage doesn’t even begin to describe the April that Zimmerman had. In 21 starts, he hit 11 home runs, tied for the major league lead and just four fewer than he had all of last season. He led MLB batters in pretty much every category you could think of, including average (.420), slugging (.886), OPS (1.344), hits (37), extra-base hits (19), RBIs (29), and number of M's in his last name (three). Thanks to his monster start, the 32-year-old slugger received the National League's Player of the Month award -- and a whole lot of attention from inquiring minds.
"I’m just going to play along with it from now on," says Zimmerman, referencing his snarky lasers-and-computers quip. He cracks a brief smile, which then disappears as he lapses back into the kind of monotone monologue that those who know him have come to expect from a guy who’s about as excitable as a stapler. This is when the truth comes out.
"Thinking about stuff, that doesn’t work for me," says the University of Virginia product, implying that contrary to popular belief, whatever he and Murphy might have discussed back in spring training didn’t necessarily take. "I’m not saying it doesn’t work for other people. I think that’s the beautiful thing about baseball -- there’s not one right way to do things. Pitchers pitch differently. Hitters, hardly anyone has the same stance. That’s just how it is. I think I just go up there and try to get a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it."
For a player like Zimmerman, who spent the better part of the past three years battling injuries, putting a good swing on it has been easier said than done. From 2014 to 2016, the former first-round pick -- who has hit more homers than anyone in a Nationals uniform -- made five separate trips to the disabled list. He dealt with a broken thumb, a strained hamstring, plantar fasciitis, a rib cage strain, and a bruised wrist. And that doesn’t even count the oblique injury that ended his 2015 campaign early but that didn’t require a DL stint because, well, it was the end of the season. As a result, Zimmerman averaged just 90 games over the past three years, making it all but impossible to find his groove.
"It’s been frustrating," he says. "Not being able to consistently play, being in and out of the lineup. Being around for a couple months and then being on the DL for six weeks. Every offseason, having some sort of procedure done, and then rehabbing and going into spring training with stuff still lingering. This year, I came in healthy, and all I had to worry about was playing and getting ready for the season. I hadn’t been able to do that in three years."
The difference was evident back in February, when Zimmerman looked like a trimmer man upon first reporting to West Palm Beach. Even though his weight of 218 pounds is squarely within the 215 to 220 range he has maintained for the past decade, it looks like a different 218. A leaner and more muscular 218. "This is the strongest I’ve seen him," says Washington hitting coach Rick Schu, who’s been with the club since 2009. When asked about his body fat percentage, Zimmerman says he doesn’t know the exact number, but he’s sure that it’s less than in the past. That lower body fat is translating to higher baseballs.
"Now that he feels healthy," says Murphy of his teammate, "those balls that he was hitting hard but on the ground, he feels like he’s really able to take chances on them. So now he’s driving those balls as opposed to last year, when he was hitting the ball really hard but probably hitting it a little bit lower than he wanted to."
In other words, Zimmerman isn’t on fire because he’s elevating the ball more; he’s elevating the ball more because he’s on fire.
"This launch angle stuff is all B.S.," Schu says. "Look at his bubble gum card. He was 25 homers with 100 RBIs just because he was staying healthy and he was in good position to hit. Now that he feels great again, he’s in a power position to drive the ball. His whole lower half is working. He’s able to get extension on some balls, so his launch angle is going to change."
It’s worth noting that recently, as Zimmerman has come back down to earth a bit, so, too, have the baseballs he has been hitting. In the first dozen days of May, a period in which his average dropped from .420 to .393, his average launch angle was 11.1 degrees, a 13 percent drop from April. During Washington’s recent home series against the Orioles, when he went just 1-for-13, his average launch angle was just 3.4 degrees. Because that’s what happens when you ground out seven times in three games, which Zimmerman did against Baltimore, in the process looking a whole lot like the .218 hitter he was last year instead of the Triple Crown-threat that he’s been this year.
"When you're going good," he says, "everything feels good and everything feels in sync. When you're not, everything feels disconnected. Obviously, I’m not going to hit .420. You just show up each day and do your routine and hope it stays that way for a long time."