The Bradley Zimmer era is off to a great start and the 24-year-old rookie looks like he’s here to stay.
While he’s cooled off a bit at the plate lately, Zimmer’s defensive performance in centerfield more than makes up for it. And there are a lot of encouraging signs in his game indicating that he will have a lasting effect on the Indians lineup.
Now that we’re 50 games into his career, it’s a reasonable time to look back at his early performance to see what we can learn about the player Zimmer may become.
Just to be clear, I don’t scouting minor league prospects. Beyond reading top 100 lists, I pay little attention to the Indians minor leaguers, so everything I have to say about Zimmer is based off his 50-game major league sample size—and 50-game sample sizes can lie.
There are certain types of statistics that are more trustworthy in smaller sample sizes, however, so I’ll focus on those. Traditional stats such as batting average or home runs are not very reliable. But performances against specific pitches, contact rate, are other statistics more closely tied to a specific skill set tend to normalize faster.
I feel the need to start this by pointing out that Zimmer is 6’5″ and 220 pounds. He’s so fast and agile in centerfield that it’s easy to overlook just how large he is and how impressive it that he can move like that at his size.
According to Baseball-Reference, Zimmer is just the fifth position player in franchise history to be listed at 6’5″ and at least 220 pounds. It’s a mostly forgettable list, but one name does stand out: Dave Winfield.
His brief Indians career may have been forgettable, but Winfield was a special athlete for his size in the 1970s and 80s. But even Winfield, who posted some dreadful numbers during his stints in centerfield, couldn’t match Zimmer’s ability to roam the outfield.
What impresses me most about Zimmer is his patience. He isn’t on Carlos Santana’s level, but considering he’s a rookie, it’s remarkable how focused Zimmer is at the plate.
Here’s a visual comparison of the pitches Zimmer swings at compared to Tyler Naquin from a season ago:
This is obviously a favorable comparison for Zimmer, and he wouldn’t look as impressive up against someone like Santana and Encarncion. But it is a fair comparison since Naquin was also a rookie and they both competed for the starting centerfield job this spring.
The differences are clear though. Zimmer’s swing zone primarily stays within the strike zone, while Naquin has a tendency to chase pitches all over the place.
Zimmer’s patience is perhaps most impressive in pitchers’ counts. It’s a situation where young hitters are often vulnerable, but Zimmer maintains his composure and manages to not extend his swings outside of his comfort zone. Among 281 qualifying players, here’s how the Indians rank in terms of chasing outside the zone in pitchers’ counts:
A low chase percentage alone won’t guarantee success, but in Zimmer’s case it has translated to one of the better weighted on-base averages in the league (wOBA) in these situations.
It has also been encouraging to see Zimmer handle breaking balls at the major league level.
Like many hitters, he’ll chase the occasional ball down in the zone but he has done an excellent job making pitchers pay for mistakes in the zone. Here’s a look at his contact rate versus breaking balls this season:
Those low breaking balls are tricky for almost all hitters, but on breaking balls in the zone, Zimmer is batting .395 this year (league average: .292). As long as you’re making pitchers pay for their mistakes, an occasional bad swing outside the zone can be forgiven.
As I said at the beginning, all of these numbers come from a small sample size. And maybe there has been some luck involved in producing this early success.
But at the very least, it’s encouraging to see Zimmer have success in areas that so many hitters struggle with early in their careers. Even if Zimmer can’t maintain these rates in these specific areas, maybe this early success will give him the confidence he needs to continue to develop other areas of his game.