Cleveland Indians

The Bradley Zimmer Problem

Spring training press clippings are often those with the most delightful hubris. Indeed, “best of shape of his life” has become a delightful February meme especially when used in regard to Bartolo Colon. Still, each spring in pursuit of breakouts and longer term story lines there is the appropriate and obvious inclination to build optimistic storylines around certain returning players. In the first week of spring training, the leader in the clubhouse for impact or breakout darling is one Bradley Zimmer.

Cleveland.com on many occasions, the News Herald and MLB.com have all published articles positive on both Zimmer’s recovery and his ability to contribute in 2019. This is not an irrational trend as visually Zimmer is likely the toolsets outfielder in camp with above average raw power, plus defense, and speed that could wreak havoc. Yet, beyond acknowledging the simple injury implications on expected performance that comes from recovering from a surgically repaired torn labrum; Zimmer has for a long time shown significant flaws that limit his ability to scratch his Mt. Olympus high ceiling.

First, Zimmer’s achilles heal, the strikeout. Since the start of 2017 of players with 400 plate appearances Zimmer has the 16th highest strikeout rate among hitters:

NameTeamBB%K%ISO
Chris DavisOrioles9.8%37%0.167
Mike ZuninoMariners7.5%36.9%0.234
Miguel SanoTwins10.9%36.8%0.226
Keon BroxtonBrewers9.2%36.8%0.205
Joey GalloRangers13.4%36.3%0.309
Jake MarisnickAstros7.1%35.2%0.221
Matt DavidsonWhite Sox7.6%35.1%0.211
Jorge AlfaroPhillies4.3%34.8%0.157
Alex Avila– – –16.2%34.4%0.166
Daniel PalkaWhite Sox6.7%34.1%0.245
Ian HappCubs12.5%33.8%0.217
Mike NapoliRangers10.1%33.6%0.235
JaCoby JonesTigers5.3%33.3%0.142
Yoan MoncadaWhite Sox10.9%33%0.169
Teoscar Hernandez– – –7.6%32.2%0.246
Bradley ZimmerIndians7.4%32.1%0.133
Brandon MossRoyals9.2%31.9%0.221
Eric ThamesBrewers12.5%31.4%0.267
Andrew KnappPhillies13.1%31.3%0.115
Michael A. TaylorNationals7.1%31%0.176

Further, you will notice of the 20 players on the above list, Zimmer has the second lowest ISO, which means his power production has been significantly worse than others who operate with such elevated strikeout rates.

What is truly unfortunate is that Zimmer’s speed which is the 96th percentile of big league baseball players is wasted when he is not on base or the ball is not in play; thus striking out in one out of every three players quiets the ability of Zimmer’s loud tools to come through.

Further, Zimmer’s batted ball metrics and distribution are inherently problematic for an already limited profile. First, Zimmer has below average exit velocity with an average of 86.5 as compared to the big league average of 87.4. While Zimmer has above average max exit velocity his long swing creates non-optimal contact points and thereby limiting contact quality.

In the era of shifts, launch angle, and exit velocity there are a couple of short hand rules of directional distribution; especially for a left-handed hitter. First, pulled ground balls, especially at a high rate will sap batting average. Second, fly balls to the opposite filed decrease their value because it adversely impacts the flight and authority of the baseball generally.

Unfortunately, Zimmer pulls ground balls decreasing his ability to beat out ground balls and Zimmer hits fly balls to the opposite value sapping their power value:

The root of the contact and contact authority problems are not a discipline problem because he chases significantly fewer balls out of the strike zone than average. Nor is Zimmer’s strikeout percentage the product of a hesitant approach; he swings at 31.6% of first pitches as compared to the big league average of 28%.

Zimmer simply swings and misses; a lot. The big league average whiff% is 24%, Zimmer has whiffed at 32% at the big league level.

The positive for Zimmer is that he has so many offensive warnings signs that marginal gains in a few places could makes his whole profile significantly better.

If Zimmer altered his launch angle he could gain; if Zimmer simply pulled both fly balls and ground balls he would produce an elevated ISO; if Zimmer reduced his whiff percentage his batting average would increase; or if Zimmer shortened or altered the plane of his swing multiple pieces could be advanced. However, Zimmer is 26 years old, not a young age to be proving oneself offensively, and coming off major surgery is not the strongest place to start.

Bradley Zimmer is enormously talented as an athlete; one could imagine him being an exemplary wide receiver or a decent wing in basketball but right now Zimmer’s baseball skills are getting in the way of his athleticism and 2019 will be a key season in determining whether those tools will ever shake free from the technical deficiencies.


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