The Cleveland Indians are entering the 2018 regular season without lineup stalwart Carlos Santana, and platoon-killing machine Austin Jackson. In order to be a similar offensive team to the 2017 iteration, the Indians will require a solid season from Santana-substitute Yonder Alonso as well as improved cumulative offensive production from Bradley Zimmer, Yandy Diaz, Jason Kipnis, and other players with the sort of upside that would suggest potential improvement in 2018. Zimmer is a former top-25 prospect in baseball whose 2017 production rested more on above-average defense than the hit tool which was lauded in college.
Zimmer is an elite athlete who is best described as “toolsy as hell” but still seeking to refine his skills enough to tap into the upside locked underneath. For Zimmer, the floor is fairly high, and is what the Indians saw in 2017. Good defense, speed on the basepaths (to the tune of 18 steals), and a decent eye will make Zimmer a roughly league average player until his speed/defense declines along the aging curve. The important questions being, where is the ceiling and what are the odds Zimmer actually gets anywhere near it?
Zimmer has mammoth batting practice power and has shown a capacity to drive the ball with authority at nearly every minor league level, but he slugged below .400 with just eight homers in 332 plate appearances at MLB. The raw power appeared to disappear at the big league level. In terms of contact authority, Zimmer was solid with 5.4% barrels per plate appearance. This placed Zimmer in the company of Carlos Santana, Corey Dickerson, Andrew McCutcheon, and Jose Altuve. Of the 296 players with at least 190 batted ball events, Zimmer ranked 86th in exit velocity on fly balls/line drives. While this may sound to be a cherry picked data point, fly ball/line drive authority is important and Zimmer was in the top third in baseball.
Zimmer, of course, does have problems. He does not put enough balls in play which will be addressed in a bit with a 29.8% strikeout percentage. He also, much like Yandy Diaz, puts the ball on the ground far too often. Zimmer can receive some value because of his speed but even this value is limited because Zimmer pulls ground balls with such frequency. The tight cluster of ground balls on the right side of the infield are a basis for too many easily converted outs.
For Zimmer to tap into the contact authority skills he carries as well as his overarching power tool, he simply has to begin to elevate the ball with greater frequency. As for the strikeouts, they are strangely not patience or eye-driven but simply swing and miss driven. Zimmer chased pitches outside the zone less than the average big league hitter, and swung inside the zone more than the average hitter. Discernment is not the issue rather, pure swing and miss is the problem. Zimmer has a long, loopy swing, undoubtedly the produced of a massive wing span which makes him prone to swing and miss. Improving this aspect is surely difficult but further improving selection can alter swing and miss frequency.
Zimmer had two different halves each with roughly 165 plate appearances, certainly a limited sample to draw on. In the first half, Zimmer carried a wRC+ of 108, above average and with his defense a very valuable player. In the second half, a nightmarish wRC+ of 54. What changed?
The first stop is usage, which did not really change significantly.1
The largest change was surely location. In the second half, right-handed pitchers, those Zimmer face predominantly due to his issues with left-handed pitching, started throwing inside to Zimmer more frequently. Further, there were more pitches at the top of the zone.
Busting Zimmer in on the hands diminished his contact authority and induced increased soft contact; a strategy he must counter.
However, the samples are fairly limited, and part of Zimmer’s second half could be due to collapse. The key for Zimmer moving forward will be to spit on offerings in the bottom half of the strike zone which he struggles to elevate and concentrate on zoning pitches to the upper-outer two thirds of the strike zone.
The reality is Zimmer has three areas where he can achieve growth to improve his offensive profile. First, diminish swing and miss, in turn strikeouts. This would appear to be the most difficult task. Second, pull the ball less frequently if retaining a ground ball stroke. Third, work on elevating the baseball, and picking a specific tunnel of pitches to drive. The third option may be both the simplest and most valuable adjustment the powerful Zimmer could make.
Unfortunately, no underlying statistic suggest Zimmer should expect positive regression or improvement. Zimmer improving his offensive profile in 2018 will require offensive adjustments. Thankfully for the Indians, Zimmer has shown an ability to do so at nearly every minor league level
- The spike in September is likely due to sample, Zimmer was injured from his head first dive into first, limiting the sample. [↩]