The Unlikely Comeback of Washington Nationals 1B Ryan Zimmerman

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterMay 23, 2017

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 06: Ryan Zimmerman #11 of the Washington Nationals hits an RBI double in the top of the sixth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on May 6, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Nationals defeated the Phillies 6-2. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The report on Ryan Zimmerman came from a scout who works for a National League team, a guy who has seen Zimmerman play many times over the years. The report he delivered Monday was a glowing one, not all that surprising considering Zimmerman is tied for the major league lead with 16 doubles and among the leaders with 13 home runs.

"Best [he has looked] in years," the scout summed up. "Looks healthy."

You can dive into the numbers and look for explanations for why the Washington Nationals first baseman is doing things at 32 he couldn't do at 29 and 30 and 31. You can search for launch angles and exit velocities, fly-ball percentages and first-pitch swing percentages. All of those have their place, and all of them fit into the Ryan Zimmerman story.

None of them are nearly as important as the last two words of that scouting report.

"Looks healthy."

Yes, he does.

The big reason Zimmerman wasn't the player at 30 he was at 24 was he almost never looked healthy. He had issues with his shoulder, his wrist, his thumb, his foot, his hamstring and his oblique, and those were just the injuries that sent him to the disabled list. He missed plenty of games, but he also had plenty of times when he played and his body wouldn't let him perform.

He's not unique. His fellow Virginian and childhood teammate David Wright watched his career fall apart at about the same time. The difference is that while Wright remains on the New York Mets disabled list and has to wonder if he'll ever play again, Zimmerman is making a case to return to the All-Star Game after an eight-year absence.

How often does that happen?

It may not happen, the All-Star part anyway. Other first basemen are having big years too, and while Freddie Freeman's broken wrist takes him out of the National League All-Star conversation, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Wil Myers, Eric Thames and others remain in it.

Zimmerman hasn't been as dominating in May as he was in April, when a 1.345 OPS earned him NL Player of the Month honors. He still has an .833 OPS for the month (well above his ugly .642 OPS last year), and he still has eight doubles, one off the National League lead for May.

He's still a huge part of a Nationals lineup that leads the majors in scoring at 5.7 runs a game. The contract that pays him $14 million this year looks like a reasonable investment again.

And all because he's finally healthy?

Well, maybe not all, although Zimmerman's health may lie behind the other reasons too. He was able to work more in the offseason because he felt better, and he was one of the first to arrive at Nationals spring training camp because his health had him ready to work.

It's true he hit with Daniel Murphy, and it's true Murphy shared the gospel of launch angles, even if Zimmerman will never become the numbers disciple Murphy already is. It's also true that as bad as most of Zimmerman's 2016 numbers were, his average exit velocity of 94.1 mph was one of the best in the game, according to MLB.com's Statcast.

His average exit velocity has been virtually the same this season (94.0 mph), so Zimmerman isn't hitting the ball any harder. He is hitting the ball higher, as in more fly balls and fewer ground balls, but not as dramatically as you may think or may have read.

In fact, according to FanGraphs, Zimmerman's fly-ball percentage in May 2017 is 30.8, lower than it was in May 2016 (36.0). That's a good explanation for why he has just two home runs in May, compared to 11 in April, but it also makes you wonder how much of an overall change Zimmerman has actually made.

He is standing a little closer to the plate, and he is swinging at a few more first pitches, both things the Nationals have encouraged and both things Zimmerman embraced. Standing closer to the plate has helped him reach outside pitches he struggled with before, and attacking the first good pitch he sees has helped keep him out of deep counts where he was too often trying to hit the pitcher's best pitch.

Perhaps because of that, Zimmerman has been willing to let pitches travel more before he hits them, and as a result he's pulling the ball slightly less than he did a year ago.

Zimmerman has moved a little closer to the plate and is less patient early in counts.
Zimmerman has moved a little closer to the plate and is less patient early in counts.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

How much of that is a result of conscious effort, and how much is just a matter of being healthy and feeling better when he comes to the plate? That's almost impossible to answer, but it is worth noting Zimmerman himself has pushed back at the idea he finally found some magic formula for hitting.

As ESPN.com's Eddie Matz wrote, Zimmerman wasn't nearly as willing as Murphy to become a poster boy for launch angle and for those who embrace metrics as the answer to every question. Told that ESPN's Sports Science people determined he was hitting the ball on average an eighth of an inch lower, Zimmerman had a great answer.

"I'm doing it on purpose," he told Matz. "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."

He was kidding, obviously. And while Statcast says his average launch angle for 2017 (10.3) is still well above his 2016 average (7.6), it's not as dramatic a difference as earlier in the season.

Presumably, Zimmerman would like to lift the ball more often than he has this month in order to hit a few more home runs. But if you asked him what the most important thing is that he needs for the rest of 2017, he'd no doubt focus elsewhere.

He'd no doubt tell you the thing that could happen would be for those scouting reports in August and September to read like the ones in April and May. Come back later this year and see how he's done.

Come back later in the year, and ignore all the numbers. Just see if scouts can still write those two most important words about Ryan Zimmerman.

Looks healthy.

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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