Bradley Zimmer and Clint Frazier. At one point, those two seemed destined to be the future of the Cleveland Indians outfield. But now, with Clint Frazier — and a handful of other prospects — in the New York Yankees organization, the future of the outfield rests on the goatee of one Mr. Bradley Zimmer.
His 2016 campaign was a success on the surface, especially if you are a fan of prospects drawing walks, but it comes with scary caveats.
First and foremost, Zimmer cannot stop striking out. A small bump in strikeout rate is to be expected when climbing up the minor league ladder. You are facing stronger competition, after all. But it does not look like Zimmer has made any improvements on his way up. If anything, his approach has gotten worse.
The 23-year-old center fielder was stuck out 28.3 percent of the time in Double-A this season, but he still finished with a .253/.371/.471 slash for a wRC+ of 136. He has always been a pretty high-BABIP player thanks to his speed, so his .341 average on balls in play should not be a red flag. His performance with the Akron RubberDucks was enough to earn him a promotion to Triple-A after 93 games. Then... things got worse.
In an admittedly small sample size of 150 plate appearences, Zimmer struck out 37.3 percent of the time, far higher than anything at any level of his career. The highest strikeout rate in the majors this season was Chris Davis. He struck out 32.9 percent of the time and almost hit 40 home runs.
Zimmer is never going to hit 40 home runs, but his total drop-off in power at the Triple-A level is a bit concerning. He finished with a .242/.349/.305 slash — an isolated power rating of .063. Again, far worse than he has had any level. His on-base percentage remained high — despite all the strikeouts — thanks to a 14.0 percent walk rate and a worrying .423 BABIP.
Part of Zimmer’s struggles could be from an injury. He took a pitch off his left hand when trying to bunt on August 10 and never really recovered afterwards. Prior to the injury, he was slashing .308/.419/.404 with two home runs. That dropped to .195/.293/.264 over his final 41 games, including a 41 percent strikeout rate.
Zimmer’s hand injury may have diminished his overall performance in the last month of the Columbus Clippers’ season, but it was not enough to prevent some postseason heroics, such as this grand slam in Game 2 of the International League semifinals that broke a 2-2 tie late in the game.
Zimmer is currently one of nine Indians prospects in the Arizona Fall League and he seems to be past the injured hand. He has just 17 strikeouts to 11 walks in 64 plate appearances against AFL pitching. He’s 12th among AFL hitters in OPS, trailing only Indians organization-mate Greg Allen for the lead on the Mesa Solar Sox.
Scouting reports on Zimmer’s defense in center field seem mixed, which could end up hurting his chances to start the season with the Indians. If anything, he’ll need some time in the minors to further work on his strikeout issues until the Indians have a need at a corner outfield spot.
Tyler Naquin is looking less and less like a permanent center fielder, though (not that he ever did in the first place), so maybe the Indians will just roll the dice and stick Zimmer there if his bat is filled with fewer holes to start 2016.