Will Ryan Zimmerman improve or decline in 2010?

Ever since the Nationals brought up Ryan Zimmerman in 2005, the club has labeled the 25-year-old hot corner as the face of the franchise. While everybody donning a Curly W may have dreamt of seeing him immediately rise to super-star status, Zimmerman trudged through three years of good but not great play that saw him suffer a few injuries and earned him his first big league contract.

In 2009, however, Zimmerman exploded by hitting .292/.364/.525 with 33 homers, 110 RBI, a 137 wRC+ and, oh yeah, a 30-game hit-steak. He won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and his cities heart. With things firing on all-cylinders for Zimmerman, the only question left to ask is, will it last? Will he continue to trend upward or is he setting himself up for a decline?
First lets look at what made Zimmerman better in 2009 than in the rest of his career.

2009 saw Zimmerman walk at the highest rate of his career (10.4%), get on base at the best rate (.364), and hit for the most power (.525 Slg.). Some may suggest that this is the result of hitting in front of a true slugger for the first time, Adam Dunn.  Conventional thought says that with the power-house Dunn behind him Zimmerman will see better pitches, therefore being able to chose which ones to hack at and which one to take. The stats show however that Zimmerman was pitched to almost identically in both 2009 when he hit in front of Dunn, and 2008 when he hit in front of, well nobody.

Zimmerman saw 59.1% fastballs in 2009, compared to 59.9% in 2008. 19.1%
fastballs compared to 19.8% in 2008, 10% change up’s compared to 11.4 % ect. Ec.t He saw 49.4 % of pitches in the strike zone compared to 51.5 in 2008, so it doesn’t seem like the pitches he saw were any better.

Instead it seems Zimmerman improved by just swinging less often. In 2009 he only swung at 39.7% of pitches he saw, where he swung at 44.1% in 2008 and 42.5% in his career. While Zimmerman swung at less pitches inside the strikezone than throughout his career, he also chased far fewer pitches in 2009 than before; 21.3% in 2009 compared to 25.2% in 2010.

He also excelled at driving the ball when he did made contact. His back-to-back 40 double seasons in 2006 and 2007 finally translated into home run power as he topped the 30 home run plateau for the first time in his career. He also started to mash fastballs like never before. According to FanGraphs, Zimmerman registered an adjusted fastball rating of 21.0 in 2009, trumping his 0.1 fastball rating of 2009, and a career fastball rating of 3.1.

610x1Defensively Zimmerman churned out his second stellar defensive season at third base. Long branded a future defensive gem in the mold of a Brooks Robinson, Zimmerman posted a career high UZR of 18.1 in 2009, good enough to lead National League infielders and earn his first gold glove. Those who watched the Nationals in 2009 saw that there was great room for improvement in his defensive game as well. Zimmerman struggled early on making several throwing errors and some other silly mistakes; if those get ironed out he could easily improve that already stellar UZR.

There are signs for concern though. While Zimmerman’s BABIP, a good indicator of over or under performance, stayed steady in 2009 he hit a career low number of ground balls, and a career high number of fly balls. Traditionally this will indicate a drop, not a rise in production, so Nats fans should be weary if those numbers don’t get back to his career averages. Zimmerman’s strikeout rate also rose to 19.5% which is slightly higher than his 18.9 career percent and his overall contact percentage went down two points in 2009.

Zimmerman also struggled with hitting curve-balls in 2009. A pitch that in the past he used to post positive ratings in, he saw his Curve Ball Rating drop from 3.7 in 2007, to 1.3 in 2008, to -4.7 in 2009.  Luckily for Zimm he only saw curveballs 6.9% of the time in 2009, but that number could steadily raise in 2010 after his poor performance.

Ultimately I think the numbers show that there is no reason to believe that 2009 was a fluke, but instead it was the year that a very talented 24-year-old came into his own. Zimmerman became a star in his fifth year in the league, and while he may not improve to a much higher degree with the bat in 2010, his defense may continue to blossom as the years go by.

Lets look at what the experts say, the 2010 forecasts/projections:
CHONE: .296/.365/.511, 27 HR, 98 RBI, 135 wRC+
Bill James: .288/.358/.511, 28 HR, 98 RBI, 131 wRC+
Marcel: .284/.351/.486, 23 HR, 79 RBI, 121 wRC+
Baseball Prospectus: .276/.353/.475/ 27 HR, 95 RBI, 40.9 VORP