Ryan Zimmerman has arrived

The season is just a little more than a month old and already there have been several outstanding individual performances of note. From Zack Greinke‘s microscopic 0.51 ERA to Evan Longoria‘s extra-base hit binge, 2009 is off to a great start.

Perhaps no one has enjoyed a hotter—and more consistent—start than the Washington Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman. Thirty-game hitting streaks are impressive. Since the 2000 season, only three players have put together a streak longer than 30 games.

When Zimmerman’s streak ended Wednesday, it capped a tremendous month at the plate. He came to bat 142 times and hit .382/.427/.649 with 11 doubles and eight home runs. He drove in 26 runs and scored 26 times.

Here are the notable performances from Zimmerman’s recent streak. His “Greatest Hits,” so to speak.

Game 1

After hitting a sacrifice fly and striking out in his first two at-bats, Zimmerman, leading off the fifth for the Nats, squared to bunt and fouled off a low fastball for a strike. He then laced a high Andrew Miller fastball off the left field scoreboard at Dolphins Stadium for a double.

The streak was on.

Game 4

On April 12 at Atlanta, when his streak was at a modest three games, Zimmerman flied out twice, reached on an error and struck out before he singled to center in his final at-bat in the eighth inning.

Game 5

This was the only time during the streak that Zimmerman entered the ninth inning without a hit. This game was the Nationals’ home opener against the Phillies. Down 9-6 entering the ninth, the Phils turned the game over to Brad Lidge. Zimmerman was the second batter in the inning and was 0-for-3 in his career against Lidge with one strikeout.

After Christian Guzman singled to lead off the inning, Zimmerman turned on a 1-0 pitch from the Phillies closer and drove it to center field and over the wall for a home run.

It was the first of eight home runs Zimmerman would slam during this streak.

Game 22

This was arguably Zimmerman’s best game of his streak. Against the Astros, he went 4-for-4 with two doubles, a walk, three runs scored and two RBI in leading the Nationals to a 9-4 win.

Game 27

For the only the third time in his streak, Zimmerman needed every plate appearance possible. In this game at Arizona, he had flied out to right field all three times against the Diamondbacks’ Doug Davis, who always has pitched well against him. Zimmerman has never collected a hit in eight appearances against Davis while striking out three times. Only Davis and Rafael Soriano have faced Zimmerman eight or more times and held him hitless.

But Davis was out of the game in the eighth when Zimmerman stepped up for the final time of the evening. Perhaps relieved that his nemesis was out of the game, Zimmerman crushed the first pitch he saw from Juan Gutierrez to center field for a home run, keeping the streak alive.

Game 29

The penultimate game of the streak is a contender with Game 22 for best-game distinction. In this one, Zimmerman finished 4-for-5 with two home runs, two runs and four RBI.

Game 30

Zimmerman singled in his first at-bat against the Giants’ Matt Cain to extend his streak to 30, matching George Brett for the longest hitting streak by a third baseman since 1980. Zimmerman added a single in the third in a 2-for-5 effort.

Game 31: the end of the streak

Going against lefty Barry Zito, Zimmerman couldn’t get on top of his pitches. In his first three plate appearances he grounded into a double play in the first, walked in a nine-pitch at bat in the third and grounded out in the fifth. In his fourth appearance, runners were on first and second with one out, but a Zito wild pitch allowed the runners to move up. Faced with a game-changing decision with the score 1-0 in favor of the Nats, the Giants elected to put Zimmerman on base intentionally. It took the bat out of his hands, but given the situation, it was the proper play.

Zimmerman had one final opportunity in the ninth with runners on the corners, but grounded into a fielder’s choice. He finished 0-for-3 with a run scored.

Recap

In the 30 games that comprised the streak, Zimmerman had 14 multi-hit games, notching 11 two-hit games, one three-hit game and two four-hit games. He was actually getting hotter as the streak progressed. Of his last 11 games of the streak covering the month of May, he had nine multi-hit games. Overall for the month (through May 12), he was hitting .500/.509/.760 with 25 hits in 50 at bats.

As Zimmerman was on a tear, so were the Nationals, at least offensively. After winning just five times in April and scoring 4.5 runs a game, the Nats already have won six games in May while scoring an average of 6.3 runs.

What’s interesting is that his approach at the plate hasn’t changed from previous seasons. According to FanGraphs, he’s still offering at roughly the same percentage of pitches out of the strike zone—he’s currently swinging at 26 percent of pitches outside the zone, which is right in line of his career rate of 25.4 percent. Also, he’s swinging at 62.7 percent of all pitches in the strike zone. Again, that’s similar to his career rate of 60.9 percent.

His discipline looks to be in step with his career percentages, but the results have changed. The area where he has really made strides is in his contact rate when swinging at balls in the strike zone. This year he’s making contact 72.4 percent of the time he swings the bat at pitches that would most likely be called strikes. In fact, his O-Contact rate neatly summarizes his progress as a hitter:

2005 – 55.6%
2006 – 54.5%
2007 – 60.8%
2008 – 69.3%
2009 – 72.4%

While the results haven’t always been there (his OPS has actually declined in each of his last three seasons prior to 2009) the improvement in discipline and contact rates had to pan out into better production eventually. It’s the first step in the development of a player who is still in his early 20s, especially one who didn’t spend much time in the minors.

Breaking his 2009 discipline down even further, thanks to the new pages at Baseball Reference, Zimmerman is looking at a strike 30 percent of the time (against a league average of 28 percent) but is swinging and missing just 13 percent of the time (against a league average of 15 percent.) He’s seeing 3.9 pitches per plate appearance, which is slightly better than league average (3.8 P/PA) but his walk rate of 8.3 percent is almost a full percentage point worse than the average hitter (9.4 percent.)

However, what is notable about Zimmerman this year is the fact he’s hitting more fly balls than ever before—and by a large margin. He’s always been a fly ball hitter—his career GB/FB ratio is 0.77—but this year, his GB/FB ratio is at 0.59. And with 20 extra base hits (12 doubles and eight home runs) out of 51 total hits, these aren’t your garden variety, lazy flies. He’s really driving the ball.

The hit chart at the right is all of Zimmerman’s base hits from his streak. I used the Nationals park as the field model since that’s where most of his plate appearances occur, but then I re-plotted his hits from away games. I removed the distances from the model (as it normally appears at MLB.com) because the hits are combined from different stadiums with different dimensions. However, the plots are unchanged. If he doubled off the wall in Florida, it’s represented as a double of the wall here.

The cluster of singles in center field is likely the result of prime, line drive contact where he’s meeting the ball at the ideal point. Apart from the singles in center, he also has pulled a number of his singles. What we really notice is a player who is literally driving the ball to all fields as illustrated by the placement of his doubles and home runs. His home run chart provided by Hit Tracker Online reveals an interesting spray of home run power. The home run in right field was Zimmerman’s first long ball of the season and while it was his shortest in “true” distance, measuring at 383 feet, it still had plenty of length.

Speaking of distance, of Zimmerman’s eight home runs, six of them were graded as having “plenty” of distance by Hit Tracker. Of the remaining two, one was a “no doubter” and one was a “just enough,” meaning it cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet. In other words, his home runs are the real deal.

While the streak was fun while it lasted, there’s a random quality to it that can sometimes overshadow what is actually going on beneath the surface: With developing power combining with improved plate discipline and contact rates, Zimmerman is putting it all together. At the end of the year, the 30-game hitting streak will be a fun footnote. What we’re most likely to remember is that 2009 was Zimmerman’s breakout year.

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