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Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman no longer feared

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D.C.'s face of the franchise has had a rough go of it in 2015. What conclusions can we make based on the way pitchers have attacked Ryan Zimmerman so far this year?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Since what seems like the beginning of time--or maybe just 10 years ago--Ryan Zimmerman has been the face of a franchise that at different times has been surprising (think the run through summer '05), terrible (much of the time after that), and then a perennial contender (2012 and forward). He's posted five seasons of 3+ WAR since 2006 and, owing in part to his long tenure, leads the Nats in career WAR.

But this season, Zimmerman has been horrible--sub-replacement level, in fact. That's what a .213/.270/.353 line and just a hint of positive UZR will do for you at first base these days.

We've seen surges from Zimmerman before, and we've seen funks too. He could certainly turn it on over the next few weeks and add to the litany of articles I've written that Google ensures will be a public regrets page for years to come. Yet I think this downturn may be a bit different.

More than just BABIP

Keeping in mind Zimmerman's overall batting line, let's get the main argument for regression back towards the good out of the way: the Washington first baseman's BABIP is breathtakingly poor .232.  This would seem to draw from a career-worst 16.2% line drive rate. The issue is, unless the pitch is down and in, Zimmerman just isn't hitting the ball hard. Compare that zone profile to, say, 2013, and you can quickly see the differences.

There's another part of the line drive problem. We looked last at hard fly ball contact; if you hit a fly ball over 93MPH, good things generally happen. With respect to line drives, the sweet spot from an exit velocity perspective seems to be between 65-80MPH, or over 97MPH. Line drives below 65 are often of the broken bat variety, while those above 80 actually risk being hit too hard and carrying to outfielders.

Just 2.3% of Zimmerman's balls in play have been line drives in the 65-80 MPH zone; Denard Span has nearly doubled that rate. And he's not blistering a great percentage over 97MPH, either.

Anyway, sure, I don't think Zimmerman will continue to post such a bad line drive rate, but trading ground balls for liners--and rocking mediocre exit velocity on those liners he does hit--is not a good thing.

The word is out

I think the league knows something about Zimmerman, and in particular, his ability to hit like the Zim of yesteryear.

For example, Zimmerman is seeing more four seam fastballs than at any point since 2009. While he's posted positive run values against those pitches virtually every year of his career, he's the third worst hitter in the league against them in 2015. He's also swinging at pitches outside the zone like he's Pablo Sandoval (OK, not that bad, but 4 percentage points above his career average).

What worried me most initially, though, was his zone percentage. Twirlers are throwing more pitches in the strike zone against the D.C. first sacker more often than any time in the past five years:

zimmerman zone%

Again, though, Zimmerman simply isn't doing anything with those pitches that target the strike zone. And this got me thinking about something I read from Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus (now at 538) last year.

Arthur came up with a stat he called "zone distance" to measure how far a hurler's pitches to a batter are from the center of that batter's zone. His idea was that the league--pitchers, catchers, scouts, on- and off-field management--could be quicker to recognize hitter issues or advances than just looking at the numbers.

As Ben Lindbergh, formerly of BP and now of Grantland, said earlier this year, Arthur...

.... made one of those analytical breakthroughs that’s so sensible it seems deceptively obvious in retrospect. [He] realized that the way a pitcher approaches a hitter isn’t only a byproduct of past performance; it’s also a potential indicator of future performance. . . . By searching for players whose zone distances decreased or increased sharply over the course of a season, he found that he could identify hitters who were good candidates to surpass or fall short of their projections in the following season. The pitchers, in some cases, were ahead of the projection systems: They could seemingly tell very quickly when a hitter’s ability had changed, whether because of a mechanical alteration, an injury (or recovery from one), or some other adjustment.

On the surface, it looks like pitchers are now more willing to challenge Zimmerman. I wondered if that would hold true with Arthur's model.

I reached out to Arthur, with a big assist from Patrick on Twitter, and he very generously (and patiently) helped me figure out Zimmerman's zone distance values.

What did I learn?  The league isn't afraid of Zimmerman, if zone distance is any indication.

Here's how Zimmerman's zone distance rate has varied this year; after a slow start, opponents are smelling blood in the water and venturing closer to the center of his zone, normally a place you wouldn't dare tempt a younger version of #11.  The Y axis represents distance from the center of his zone, and "index" is simply the number of pitches he's seen this year:

zimmerman zd

What this means is that opposing hurlers have been more and more willing to challenge Zimmerman as this season has gone on. It wasn't always this way; indeed, it wasn't this way as recently as last year.

I've placed a line on the difference between 2014 and 2015 in the graph below to help show this. At the end of a 120 wRC+ campaign last year, pitchers were avoiding the place where baseballs don't come back. But you'll see the familiar downward trend from almost the start of this year:

zim 14-15 zd

About 50 pitches into this season, the league seemed to take a much more pessimistic view of Zimmerman's dangerousness. That's way before you and I were making similar conclusions. And for major league teams, the decisions they make in their approach to hitters don't just subject them to internet ridicule like I do, they lose baseball games, revenue, the whole shebang. Assuming teams know more than we do, I think there is some reason for concern.

Conclusions

June hasn't been very kind to the Nationals and Zimmerman. Doubtless it's been frustrating for everyone in the organization. And fans too--I'm as big a proponent of Zimmerman as there is.

What can help? Writing about him, maybe. Perhaps there is something physically wrong with Zimmerman. I doubt that, but who knows. It could also be just the sort of thing where something clicks, the weather keeps getting warmer, and he starts to "see the ball" better. In any case, hopefully the fear we may now have translates to the pitching rubber over the next several months.

Big thanks to Rob Arthur for his help and instruction on how to calculate zone distance, and Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball for data.