A few times now this offseason, I’ve heard mention of how the Cleveland Indians don’t have a for sure outfield coming into 2018. Which is fair — right field will be a mishmash, Brantley is a big question mark, and Melvin Upton Jr. injects very little hope. But whether from media types or fans on Twitter, there seems to be this glossing over of Bradley Zimmer. I can’t believe I’m writing this — and maybe I’m wrong in reading the tea leaves as I am — but how is there any question that Zimmer isn’t going to be out there for the majority of the season? That right there is an everyday center fielder.
It’s hard to refute Zimmer’s defensive capability. In just 100 games, he put up great numbers in every type of advanced, traditional, or eye test type of stat:
Bradley Zimmer Defensive Stats
|Ultimate Zone Rating||4.9|
|Defensive Runs Saved||4|
|Inside Edge 0-10%Probability||27%|
There is no measure by which he’s a negative. Adding to that, by Statcast measures, he’s the third fastest man in baseball, his 29.9 meters per second sprint speed trailing only Billy Hamilton and Byron Buston. About the only knock I can find on him is that in 14 chances, he didn’t convert a single 5 Star Catch opportunity, which drags down his outs above average. It drags it down to zero, so even in this, he’s at least good enough to be an average center fielder, in his rookie year. For reference, this is what a 5 Star Catch looks like:
Or close enough. It’s not as though this is easy. And we’ve seen Zimmer make plays nearly like that. Recent study by Tom Tango suggests a zero outs above average is actually a smidge below average for a center fielder, but Zimmer has room to grow.
Heck, for all we know Zimmer simply wasn’t aggressive as he could be in center because he was still just a rookie surrounded by grizzled vets. We saw that bite Tyler Naquin in the butt in the World Series, when he didn’t take command of center on a couple vital plays. Or maybe Zimmer is merely a very good center fielder, which feels like selling him somewhat short. The way he covers ground with those unsettlingly long strides of his, he tricks us into thinking he’s not as fast as he actually is.
The only real worry anyone should have is with his offensive production. It was ugly in 2017. Zimmer posted an 88 wRC+, which in slash form looks like .241/.307/.385, striking out 28.8 percent of the time against a mere 7.8 percent walk rate. Zimmer always struck out a lot in the minors, especially after he revamped his swing in 2016 to generate more lift and power, but his walks were always in double digits in the minors. He did have the hardest hit ball of any Indian at 114.6 miles per hour, which is something, but it was a bit disappointing, even if the team wasn’t really counting on him. Apart from the base numbers, Zimmer actually had a season relatively close to league average in terms of more advanced numbers:
Zimmer vs. League Average
It didn’t shake out in the box score, but this shows he has a better than average sense of his zone, hits the ball harder, and hits liners at least at an average rate. If it weren’t for the fact he was asked to bunt more than he should (read: ever, even if it was just 10 or 12 times) perhaps we’d see a bit of a shift in that flyball/ground ball ratio. It’s not like his contact rate was that dreadful either. If these trends hold and he improves as he’s expected, he could approach something like a league average offensive season in 2018/ That happens, he quickly makes the leap from intriguing prospect to up and coming pseudo-star. And that’s not that far-fetched to expect. Unlike other superb outfielders like Hamilton or Ender Inciarte, Zimmer was expected to be a good hitter in the majors.
Of the three youngsters the Indians had on the farm a couple years back, Clint Frazier was supposed to be the most offensively gifted, but Zimmer has long been hailed as the prototypical five tool player. He’s shown the defense, he’s shown the speed, he’s shown the arm — one of his outfield assists in mid-June clocked at 101.8 miles per hour, the hardest throw from the outfield all year — and he’s shown the power with that 114 mph blast. We all know he’s going to strike out a bunch, but everyone does these days. Expecting a rookie to come up and post an .800+ OPS seems like a little much to me, even if he is the top prospect. It can’t always be Francisco Lindor, no matter how badly we want it.
This is all probably a waste of time to write. Of course everyone recognizes he’s the center fielder. He has to be. What the hell is the point otherwise. But he’s going to be more than just a role player in 2018. He dipped his toe in 2017. He showed the tools to be excellent, one of the best at his position not named Trout. It’s going to come together for him this year, and Indians fans really shouldn’t be surprised.