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Ryan Zimmerman’s Struggles Continue

The Washington Nationals have been on a roll, and at 38-27, they stand atop the National League East by three games. They’ve done it largely on the backs of their starting rotation, who own the best ERA and FIP in baseball at 2.97 and 3.16, respectively. Because of their success, a certain star third baseman has been able to rather quietly attempt to work through his struggles.

But at some point in the season, the Washington Nationals are going to very much need Ryan Zimmerman to start resembling any close approximation to his former self if they’re going to be serious about winning their division. And right now, Zimmerman looks absolutely lost at the plate.

Zimmerman currently owns a slash line of .229/.300/.322. He has three home runs and ten doubles in 227 plate appearances. This is coming from a third baseman with a career .285/.351/.470 line who has hit over twenty home runs and driven in 85 or more runs in any season in which he was healthy. The health part of that is what really concerns me.

As you well know, Zimmerman spent a good deal of time on the disabled list in 2012 with a shoulder injury — and where he was bad before he went on the disabled list, he’s been equally ineffective since returning. It’s hard to believe that this former blue chip is healthy and performing at such a level, but his bat has been about as vacant as a Herman Cain rally.

Zimmerman is still walking at a decent rate at 9%, but his contact rates are down, his swinging strike rate is up,and where he’s had some success in the past seems to have evaporated in 2012. Looking at his pitch type values over the last several seasons is telling. He’s always had good success versus the fastball and change, but in 2012, he’s struggling across the board:

Where Zimmerman used to rate well above average on fastballs, and historically used to crush the change, he is below average on each of these four main pitches, and in the case of the change up, he’s really scuffling.

Zimmerman’s hit trajectory profile continues to trend in a curious direction — a direction that is decidedly away from a typical power hitter profile:

2009 and 2010 were both pretty terrific years for Zimmerman, and we can see that his trajectory profile is pretty much the same. But he missed significant time last year with the oblique injury and now he’s lost significant time in 2012 due to a shoulder injury, and it seems that both situations may have impacted the kind of contact he makes.

Zimmerman has always been murder on left handed pitchers. In his career, he owns a .316/.397/.499 line with a wOBA of .384. That compared to right handed pitchers, where he has hit .276/.337/.461 with a wOBA of .344. Even when Zimmerman was struggling at the plate, a left handed pitcher was typically just what the doctor ordered to get him going. Well not so far in 2012.

The sample size isn’t great, but Zimmerman is hitting just .227/.306/.250 versus LHP so far this season for a wOBA of .230. He’s striking out over 20% of the time, and none of his three home runs have come off a lefty. What’s more, he hasn’t even gotten particularly unlucky. Despite hitting almost 62% ground balls against left handers, which pushes his xBABIP up close to .310, he’s currently experiencing a .294 BABIP.

Last point about left handers — Zimmerman sees a four seam and two seam fastball most frequently from left handed pitchers. He swings at those pitches anywhere from 25-35% of the time over the last two seasons. But when he has swung, the results have been very different. In 2011, he swung and missed (when he offered at the pitch) about 17-20% of the time. In 2012, it’s over 40% on the four seam fastball:

Of the two seam fastballs he’s made contact with, 100% of them have rolled for a grounder. Sliders and curveballs are 75% and 80% ground balls, respectively.

So far in June, Zimmerman is hitting .190/.227/.254. His ISO is .063 and he’s walking less than 5% of the time. It’s been a bad season overall, but it has only gotten worse. At this point, I’m hoping there actually is something physically wrong with him just to have a smoking gun to point to. Zimmerman is a true star among young third basemen, and I refuse to believe that he’s simply forgotten how to hit. As long as the Nationals are winning, it will be easier to keep running him out there to work through his issues — and you can bet after sinking $100 million into Zimmerman this off-season, they’ll do just that.

From a fantasy perspective, if you own him, you have some difficult choices to make. I’d probably wind up stashing him if I had a decent replacement and perhaps start him against some lesser pitchers going forward, waiting for the switch to flip. If you’re not an owner and you’re at the bottom of the standings, he’s certainly not a bad idea as a buy low candidate. But I just can’t guarantee his value won’t stay right where it is, because the typical indicators don’t look good.