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Zimmerman Zapping The Baseball

The Washington Nationals, to be kind, are not experiencing a high point in franchise history; the Expos of the mid-90’s, these are not. Off to a wretched 6-17 start (largely supported by a negative 29 run differential) on the heels of a Latin American bonus skimming scandal, the dismissal of Jim Bowden and the construction of a brand spankin’ new stadium that roughly a dozen people have visited, the Nats are baseball’s biggest punch line.

Fortunately, the end of the alphabet has been exceedingly generous to Washington, supplying a pair of franchise cornerstones in third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and right-handed starter Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann the starter might already be the best arm on the pitching staff, while the Zimmerman manning the hot corner is off to a blazing start at the plate.

As you likely know, Zimmerman spent roughly three seconds in the minor leagues following his selection of out Virginia with the 4th pick in the 2005 amateur draft. After just 250 AB split between A-Ball and AA (where he batted a scorching .336/.377/.564), the slick-fielding third baseman got the call to the majors, where he made an extremely positive impression as a 20 year-old (.422 wOBA in 62 PA).

Zimmerman’s full-season debut in 2006 was everything that one could have hoped for: batting .287/.351/.471, he posted a .348 wOBA while contributing with the leather as well (4.7 UZR/150). The result was 4.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), an all-star performance for a guy barely old enough to order a drink.

2007 was nearly identical in terms of offensive output. Posting a .340 wOBA (.266/.330/.458), Zimmerman posted very similar walk and strikeout rates to those of his rookie campaign (BB rates of 9% in ’06 and 8.5% in ’07, K rates of 19.5% in ’06 and 19.1% in ’07). His Isolated Power (ISO) increased slightly, from .184 to .191. While his bat didn’t progress rapidly, Zimmerman’s slightly above league average lumber (supplemented by a crazy-good 16.5 UZR/150 at third) made him worth 5.1 WAR.

Given his Scott Rolen-esque skill-set and youth, Zimmerman’s 2.2 WAR output in 2008 came as something of a disappointment. The 6-3, 225 pounder suffered a left shoulder injury that limited him to 466 PA. His wOBA again fell slightly to .336, as he hit .283/.333/.442. His walk rate slipped to 6.8%, with his ISO dropping to .159. Clearly affected by the shoulder in the early season (his April OPS was .632), Zimmerman returned in late July with better results: a .320/.367/.420 line in August, followed by a .290/.347/.516 showing in September.

That late-season raking has carried over into 2009: Zimmerman has a .392 wOBA thus far, mashing to the tune of .306/.364/.551. His .245 ISO is light years ahead of 2008’s pace, the result of fewer pitches beaten into the infield dirt. Zimmerman is taking to the air in ’09:

2006: 42.3 GB%, 35.9 FB%
2007: 43.5 GB%, 39.5 FB%
2008: 46.1 GB%, 34.1 FB%
2009: 31.2 GB%, 48.1 FB%

For the first time in his career, Zimmerman is lofting the ball with frequency. His flyball percentage ranks among the top 25 in baseball, and not coincidentally, that list includes plenty of power hitters.

With a sound shoulder and a more power-oriented approach, Zimmerman looks poised for an offensive breakthrough in 2009. Still just 24, Washington’s championship-caliber third baseman (just signed to a long-term extension) provides a strong foundation for a franchise with plenty of broken windows.