Bradley Zimmer has been a happy surprise for The Cleveland Indians this year. He’s the center fielder any team would want, he’s flashed power, incredible speed, range and an amazing arm in the outfield. He’s forced the coaching staff to play him basically every day because of his ability to impact the game in so many facets. The refrain has been, if he can hit at all, he’s the starter. For two months, he did hit pretty well. Between his call-up and the middle of July Zimmer logged a .289/.339/.450 line, good for a very nice 109 wRC+. That’s one of the better rates on the team. But since about the All-Star Break, Zimmer’s bat has gone silent. I got to wondering what is going wrong.
The obvious answer is, he was getting lucky in a BABIP sense and life is just correcting. After all, a .365 BABIP is pretty unsustainable, even for one of the fastest men in the game. But just because it’s dropped down to .271, that shouldn’t be the reason he’s turned into a .661 OPS (74 wRC+) hitter. It certainly describes what happened, but it’s not everything. BABIP can be affected not just by luck, but by how you’re hitting the ball, and how you’re pitched. If you don’t square up on balls as well, you’re going to hit them weakly. That isn’t happening for Zimmer, though — according to FanGraphs, his hard-hit rate has actually risen more than four points to 35.3 percent of batted balls, while his soft-hit rate has dropped more than five points to 15.7 percent. He’s getting wood on the ball. But that’s not all there is too it, is there?
One of the supposed reasons ZImmer was so bad in the minors last year (he had a .654 OPS in Columbus despite a .349 on-base percentage) and also the reason he wasn’t called up till May this year was because he was working on a new swing. The goal was to be able to hit lefties better and hit for more power. It would lead to more strikeouts, but the other two things are good. So what did this look like?
For most of this year, he owned a 23.3 line drive rate, a 50.5 percent ground ball rate, and pulled the ball 38.3 percent of the time. This explains the high BABIP — liners fall for hits about 70 percent of the time, and grounders somewhere south of 25 percent. Fly balls are the worst at it, barely 21 percent of the time. They do become home runs of course.
Since the All-Star break, roughly, (I picked July 13th as a cut-off), Zimmer’s fly ball rate has climbed more than 13 points to 39.6 percent, while liners are happening only 16.7 percent and grounders 43.8 percent of the time. Basically, he’s started doing the things that take full advantage of his raw athleticism — hitting it on the ground or on a low trajectory, instead swinging like he’s going for home runs. I figure the first two months of his career are more what he wanted when he adjusted his swing, and this is an adjustment back. So what happened? What changed?
For one, he’s getting pitched differently, as this gif demonstrates:
There’s considerably less down and away, which is where you typically see pitchers attack lefties. Part of that has to be Zimmer’s long arms, which give him the ability to turn those normally hard-to-hit balls into well-struck line drives. People have adjusted, working him up more (though not up and in, curiously) and and also inside. Which makes sense — he whiffs on those pitches more:
In fact, he’s striking out more in general. Prior to the break, Zimmer packed a 26.1 percent K rate. That has climbed to 32.3 percent. A silver lining is that his K/BB ratio hasn’t shifted, since he’s walking 10.9 percent of the time now instead of just 8.6 before the break, and still commands the zone like veteran. He’s just not striking the ball correctly. Still hard, just at bad angles.
Usually when this happens too a rookie, you see a demonstrable change in how pitchers are treating him. A hole is found in the swing, or a weakness to a certain pitch. We did see some of that in Zimmer being attacked up in the zone more (shades of Tyler Naquin, anyone?) but there has been little shift in the types of pitches Zimmer has been seeing:
But as the earlier graph shows, he's swinging and missing more than we’d seen. So he's walking more, hitting the ball in the air more, and whiffing more.
Kind of sounds like the hitting profile of someone like Adam Dunn than your typical leadoff hitter. And that's just fine. He's seeing 3.99 pitches per plate appearance, above the league average 3.90, his 11.4 percent home run/fly ball rate is also above league average, and he's one of the best base-stealers in the game.
Zimmer’s numbers have not been pretty of late, but I don't think that's really a bad thing. It’d be nice if they were, well, nicer. But he’s doing things that end up leading to big offense. He wants to be an impactful bat that does more than just slaps the ball around the infield and legs out hits. That approach isn't as sustainable as someone who blasts fly balls and liners. It just looks really ugly right now, whether due to bad luck, his being a rookie and not all the way into his Grown Man Strength or (my pet theory) he’s a little dinged up from running into the wall repeatedly.
Whatever it is, it’s not awesome to watch right now.