Ryan Zimmerman Goes The Other Way

Washington's veteran first-baseman is off to a brilliant start, and doing a few things differently. Is this a material adjustment, or a metaphysical one?
Share |

Ryan Zimmerman, a career .280 hitter and guy at the party with the funny hat, is known for his sleepy eyes and remarkable skill at hitting to all fields. 

Through 50 games this season, en route to a .365 average that will probably regress towards the mean but is very very chill in the meantime, seven of his MLB-lead-challenging 14 home runs and ten of his third-best 16 doubles have been driven to the right of second base. 57 percent of his extra-base hits. Four of his home runs, a plurality of them, have landed in dead right -- power alley for lefties.

All this is meant to tell a story. Not to complicate, but to clarify. Predictably, Zim’s renaissance (def: rebirth, reawakening) at age 32 has prompted journalists, awash in a data like toddlers at Candy Kitchen, to explain it away, and do the armchair-GM routine in an even more granular and punctilious way than Bill James would ever care to. To wig out, basically.

Information is good, but small truths can, at times, obscure bigger, or at least more interesting ones. As the late tennis geek and self-described “serious watcher” of sports David Foster Wallace wrote in his 2006 ode “Roger Federer as Religious Experience:”

There are three kinds of valid explanation for Federer’s ascendancy. One kind involves mystery and metaphysics and is, I think, closest to the real truth. The others are more technical and make for better journalism.

In the service of “real truth” it sometimes pays to rummage around for the mysterious and metaphysical. It’s just Ryan Zimmerman, and it’s still just May, but let’s treat ourselves.


For example: one might think that Zim’s sleepy eyes, his religion of de-escalation in every case and his ability to go oppo are as disconnected as a strict vegetarian diet is from throwing 95 miles per hour. But anyone who’s tried knows that hitting to the opposite field requires, first and foremost, patience. This is a patience less to do with time as a conscious, measurable entity, and more to do with an instinctive, back-of-the-brain assurance that you can do a thing. Since it takes around 420 milliseconds (less than half of a second) in total for a pitch to reach home plate, the interval of time we’re talking about is basically nothing. But in the small universe of the batter’s box, it’s the difference between barreling-up a line drive on a ball that you allow to travel to the back of the zone, and rolling over on one that you connect with out in front of the plate, which incidentally is something Zim does a lot when things aren’t going well.

So is Zim more patient this year? More confident? Could be.

But before we go there, let’s look at what the real journalists have to say. Some weeks ago, Neil Greenberg at the Washington Post explained Zimmerman’s early-season dominance in the following manner:

His average exit velocity improved from 92.5 mph to 93.8 mph in one season with his launch angle increasing from 9.0 to 12.1 degrees, increasing his line-drive rate from 16.7 to 23.5 percent with a corresponding decrease in ground balls (48.6 to 37.6 percent).

By this line of analysis, the cuteness of puppies can be modelled using a simple formula of the floppiness of their ears divided by the ratio of eye circumference and tail wag, and the effect of a mother’s love can be detected using a combo blood-pressure gauge and digital stethoscope.

As for the math, there’s of course meaning behind it—an eleven percent decrease in ground balls is notable—but is there meaning in it? For one thing, to say that Zim's problems last year, when he batted .218, with more strikeouts than hits, were due to launch angle is to blunder into the cardinal sin of diagnosticians everywhere; to mistake symptom for cause. It’s like saying your car's check oil light is on because wherever you park it, a dark pool forms beneath its undercarriage, or that your tomatoes didn’t ripen because they stayed green.

Zim himself insists that his success is due to the fact that he’s finally healthy, which seems true more as a statement of feeling than fact. After all he played nearly a full season in 2013 and batted just .275. But after a tumultuous few years during which he suffered injuries to his foot and oblique and shoulder and dealt with an unnerving yips-like syndrome, he really does seem healthier than he’s been in a while and ready to settle into his new position. Since 2014 he had moved around the diamond frenetically; during an injury-addled 2014, he got most of his starts in left field. First base, the NL’s equivalent of a parking spot for older statesmen, is starting to look good on him. Maybe Zim’s finally comfortable.

In a UVA hype video from the early aughts about the baseball team’s soft-spoken leader, the hero finally appears after a minute of plaudits from teammates. He looks like he just woke up from a nap on the beach. “I try to keep the team as loose as I can,” he said, with a shrug. “Because, I mean, you play better when you’re loose.”

Of numbers, there's a reason why you "crunch" them. It’s because they’re stiff, lifeless. They’re like desiccated leaves under your shoe, trampled just to feel them crackle. Or if you're Kai Ryssdal chirping on public radio, you "do" numbers, with that self-intoxicated didacticism, that insistence that what we're doing (with numbers) is fun. Or in the world of sales, you “make” them—accord to them, meet them with that bleak, gray-carpeted Glengarry Glen Ross nod to their impersonality, and their tyranny.

Zimmerman tends to chafe at journalists and their narratives, the kind who habitually leave numbers uncrunched. Early in the season, a gaggle of them stood at his locker as he prepared for an afternoon home game. They were asking about launch angle, again.

“I’m doing it on purpose,” he said in a deadpan, his Zim-ness dialed up to 10. “All offseason, I worked on hitting the ball one-eighth of an inch lower and it’s totally paying off. I used lasers and computers, and every time I didn’t hit it one-eighth of an inch lower, my bat blew up so that I had to get a new one.”

Here is Ryan holding up a funhouse mirror to the journalists who, in doing their honest work to understand, have neglected their job to interpret. Baseball is fertile ground for this sort of thing; there’s never a dearth of numbers, of stats, of discrete bits of information to parse. But the game can also vex because its lingua franca, more than any other sport, is nonsense. To emit a string of inarticulate syllables from shortstop as a means of encouraging your pitcher, or to tautologically claim someone seems “hitterish,” is to admit the profound skepticism about pure reason that’s shot through the game’s culture. This makes sense, because baseball is indeed unreasonably hard, but it can present as an affront to a reporter’s insistence on an unquestioned link between cause and effect.

What Zim appears to be telling us, with his oblique quotes and maybe also with his hot start, is that sometimes the truest answer is the simplest one, and that from the small universe of the batter’s box there may not be much news to report. Faced with a 98 mile-per-hour fastball and a curveball that breaks from your head to your knees, sometimes all you can do is stay loose, look for a pitch, and by all means go oppo, if you can.

Share |


No comments yet. Login to post comments.