Can Indians outfielder Bradley Zimmer ever live up to the potential he flashed during his rookie season in 2017?
It’s a question that’s been asked countless times since Zimmer first started dealing with ailments. From a rib injury to shoulder surgery to oblique problems, the outfielder was sidelined for the majority of the 2018 and ‘19 seasons. And when he finally returned to the big leagues as a September callup in ‘19, he didn’t quite look the same as he did during his solid rookie campaign.
For one, Zimmer stood completely upright in his stance, looking completely different from his posture in ‘17, when he had a noticeable bend in his knees. He only had 13 plate appearances, but that new form wasn’t his answer, as he went hitless in his short stint with the Indians. But that wasn’t the time to fret. This was all part of a process.
“[He] hadn’t played in [darn] near a year,” Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo said, “and I remember when he came in and he was standing like [upright] and [Terry Francona was] like, ‘Van Bo, what the hell is he doing?’ [I responded,] ‘We’ve talked about it. Be patient.’”
Patience was the key, even if it seemed like an excruciatingly long four-year wait. Zimmer has finally found a comfortable stance -- one less Frankenstein-like -- and locked down his timing to make sure his hands are making contact out in front of his body, rather than letting the ball get too deep in the strike zone. His results this year have proven that he still has potential left in the tank. But the question remains: Is this the Zimmer the team has been waiting for?
Cleveland is hoping to find out. Zimmer is entering his first year of arbitration and the team desperately needs outfielders. Center fielder Myles Straw has quickly become part of the team’s future. Can Zimmer follow suit?
Let’s take a look at whether it’s a possibility:
Power is the first thing that comes to mind with Zimmer’s 2021 season. He’s flexed his muscles so hard that he’s launched homers farther than slugger Franmil Reyes. On Aug. 9, he recorded the longest home run by an Indians batter in the Statcast Era (since 2015), smacking a 471-foot blast into Heritage Park in center field. He followed that up last week with a 465-foot shot into the second deck in right field -- territory that has nearly been untouched since Progressive Field underwent renovations in 2015.
“The power has always been there,” Van Burkleo said, “but if you’re late, it doesn’t show up. There’s more ground balls. There’s more fight. There’s more rolling over. Now that he’s getting on time and syncing things up and his hands are in a freer position, I think you’re gonna see balls like [the 465-footer].”
Zimmer’s ground-ball rate has always been above the MLB average, but at 51.2% so far this season, it’s currently the second lowest it’s been in any season of his career, behind a 50% rate in his brief 2020 campaign. His sweet-spot rate, the percentage of batted balls in the 8-32 degree launch angle sweet spot zone, is 32.6%, which is right around the MLB average but certainly leaves room for improvement.
Zimmer is also hitting the ball hard again. In that rookie year in ‘17, he had a 39.9% hard-hit rate. That’s above the MLB average, but not quite in elite territory. But in his brief playing time in 2019-20, it was just 16.7%. So the fact that his 2021 hard-hit rate is back up to 39.5% is certainly a good thing -- and he’s maxed out as high as a 113.3 mph exit velocity, which is in the 91st percentile for max exit velocity.
And just as a reminder, the reason we talk about maximizing facets like sweet-spot rate and hard-hit rate is that type of contact leads to success. So far in 2021, the league-wide batting average on hard-hit batted balls is .500, with a 1.012 slugging percentage. And on sweet-spot contact, it’s .597 and 1.109. On batted balls that satisfy both requirements? Try a .690 batting average and 1.565 slugging percentage. This is why it’s important for Zimmer to maximize both hitting the ball hard and in the air.
Let’s not forget the power-speed combo potential, which made him the Indians' top prospect before he was called up in 2017.
Zimmer’s average sprint speed of 29.4 ft/sec is just shy of the 30 ft/sec elite threshold. It’s a 97th-percentile figure, and back when he was a rookie, his average sprint speed was on the dot at that 30 ft/sec mark, which was in the 99th percentile.
That speed makes him a great defender, too, and indeed he is in the 94th percentile in Outs Above Average this season. The part that’s shown in flashes is the power, as noted above. His hard-hit rate wouldn’t be 90th percentile or better like his speed or defense, but it’d be above the 50th percentile if he qualified (which he doesn’t yet for 2021).
Strikeouts have always been a part of Zimmer’s game, and the same has been true this year -- a 34.5% strikeout rate, well above the MLB average of 22%. With his potential to hit the ball hard, there’s no question that making more contact would help his game further -- more chances for good outcomes.
He’s also struggled against non-fastballs. While he’s hitting .317 and slugging .488 in at-bats ending in fastballs, he’s at just a .155 average and .169 slugging percentage against breaking pitches and a .150 average and .350 slugging percentage against offspeed. In 2017, he actually hit offspeed the best of any pitch group, with a .278 average and .417 slugging percentage. And to the concerning strikeout total, it’s worth noting he’s missed on 56.6% of his swings against offspeed pitches this year.
So, is this the Zimmer the Indians have been waiting for? Maybe the 28-year-old isn’t on the path to exceed the lofty expectations that were set in 2017, but this season has taught us that he’s put himself on a path to success -- one that didn’t seem attainable as recently as last year. And because he’s been able to prove he can continue to improve and better himself with age, that leaves the door open for the answer to be yes.
“I always preach, the good players put confidence ahead of success,” Van Burkleo said. “And when you’re not having success, it’s hard to do. But now that he’s having success and he’s feeling the swing, he knows what he’s looking for, as far as the feel, and he’s able to obtain it.”