It’s all but assured that Bradley Zimmer will be the center fielder when the Cleveland Indians open the season in Seattle next week. He showed flashes of the excellence we’ve been promised when he sat at the top of the Indians’ prospect rankings, but a first half to second half 108/54 wRC+ split and a season cut short by injury meant disappointment was the last feeling we had with the young outfielder. His ceiling is incredible, but few players reach their ceiling. After what he did for most of the year, even a happy medium would be nice, but what would the worst, best case scenario be for Zimmer?
That’s convoluted, huh. Basically, I’m wondering what minimum would it take for Zimmer to stay as the starting center fielder. In 105 games before he got hurt, he was decently valuable, if only because of his glove, earning 1.6 fWAR and 1.5 rWAR. This despite the aforementioned subpar second half of his season, where he hit like a rookie.
Zimmer is probably better than he showed that second half. He was suffering from the reverse of the BABIP boon that had been placed on him in the first half, that rate falling from .365 in his first 49 games to .286 the second half. That second mark is a bit closer to league average so you would be right in thinking what he did late is more in line with who he was to that point, but with the speed he has you’d also expect Zimmer to have an above average BABIP. So he’s something better than dreadful at the least. Beyond that, he did hit well in the minors after he adjusted his swing before the 2017 season, putting up a .902 OPS which included a very strong .371 on-base percentage. We all know he’s going to strike out a lot, but the ceiling is where it is for a reason. The adjustment was for a better bat path. If we’re to believe Ted Williams’ book The Science of Hitting, it means a bit more loft. If anything, that adjustment, along with his patience, raises the ceiling a bit.
But even if he doesn’t achieve all he can be, he is going to be a solid regular for the Indians. That 1.6 fWAR he was worth over 105 games works out to over 2 wins in a 150 game season. Again, this is all buoyed by his defense. Unlike the bat, gloves don’t usually go through slumps. The typical comparison for Zimmer might be Billy Hamilton — both are fast center fielders. Zimmer is third in baseball in sprint speed at 29.9 feet per second, Hamilton second at 30.1. But Hamilton is a singular talent when it comes to speed and base-stealing prowess (as skill all its own) and never known for his bat, even in the minors. Zimmer is supposed to be more of a five-tool guy, even if he doesn’t cause quite the disruption on the basepaths. He’s already 25, though, I don’t think veteran wiles are going to have that much impact on his outfield prowess. No, I think a better comparison for what the worst of Zimmer (or a realistic if disappointing Zimmer) might be Jackie Bradley, Jr.
It’s hard to understate the excitement that surrounded Bradley when he hit the majors, and the disappointment that surrounded his merely decentness. He’s seemingly supposed to be so much better than he is. If anything Mookie Betts is what people expected Bradley to be. He was amazing in 2017 — five wins, a 119 wRC+ in 156 games — but even that was a tale of two halves. A 143 wRC+ before the break fell to 93 afterwards. This past year saw much the same as he was good before the All-Star Game - 122 wRC+ — and basically a defensive specialist afterward with a 93 wRC+.
Without some kind of consolidation in contact rate or some kind of plate discipline spike, this is what I expect Zimmer to look like. He struggled with contact last year, his 70.4 percent rate sixth worst among center fielders. Bradley, oddly enough, was just a few steps ahead at 72.4 percent, good for 10th worst. His hard hit rate was 33.5 percent, basically tied with Bradley and ahead of guys who broke into stardom like Chris Taylor (32.4 percent), Aaron Hicks (30.8 percent). Yes, this is cherrypicking, but Hicks and Taylor were barely above Zimmer in contact rate. Though Hicks at least was second among all center fielders with a 14.1 percent walk rate, twice Zimmer’s. He was just one point ahead at 8.8 percent, right in line with Bradley. Which, to be honest, doesn’t tell us much of anything except maybe he needs some major league seasoning.
We should expect Zimmer to work walks, though, at a rate approaching 10 percent perhaps, even if he does strike out a ton. He’s always done it in the minors, including a 13.8 percent rate in Double-A in 2016 and 14 percent that year in Triple-A. He was seeing 3.93 pitches per plate appearance last season too, the third highest rate on the team. With comfort and experience that should only go up. Between that and flashes of power — his 105 mph average homer exit velocity was fourth highest on the team — the bones of an at least decent player are there. Though it was only eight homers. And admittedly, that same list has Erik Gonzalez ahead of Zimmer with only four home runs. So maybe that’s nothing. But unlike Gonzalez, Zimmer was scouted as having a solid power tool, FanGraphs’ Prospect Report giving him a 50 current and 60 ceiling raw power rating. So it’s not nothing. People see the ability, he just needs to solidify it, even if it’s only in fits and starts.
That’s why Bradley, Jr. is a good choice for what disappointed acceptedness would look like with Zimmer’s future. He’s great defensively and streaky as a fraternity pledge, with the raw tools that keep you coming back and hoping for more. In only 105 games, that describes Zimmer’s career to a T already. If he did turn into a 2.5ish win player who suddenly turns into an inferno, is that so bad, really? There’s too much talent there for him to just bust completely. He’ll just have frustrating stretches and dominant ones. And jump over a wall now and again. Which is,at least, fun to watch.