CLEVELAND (92.3 the Fan) – The Cleveland Indians have never been an organization to bring players along quickly, no matter their level of success. Development philosophies are often associated with minor league players, but the ideas span to the major leagues as well.
Case in point, Bradley Zimmer.
While fans clamor for the young center fielder to be an everyday player, Manager Terry Francona has been shy about starting the 24-year old against left-handed pitchers.
This philosophy comes despite Zimmer’s 1.2 WAR through just 35 games, summing up his success as a whole, not to mention his success against lefties at the Major League and Triple-A levels.
It seems the situation is progressing, as Francona mentioned he was ‘kicking himself’ over omitting his budding star from the lineup on Friday against the Twins, a game in which lefty Adalberto Mejia started.
“You try to maybe give him what you think he can handle, because I think as he grows, he’s going to grow into handling a lot,” the manager said. “But, I don’t think it’s bad to kind of work into it, because this league can be really tough on people. You feel a responsibility to kind of try to help guys along. I know he wants to play every day, and there’s going to be a day when he does.”
The time at the plate is only one facet of the rookie’s game, with more developed tools than many big leaguers between his blazing speed on the base-paths and in the outfield, where he shows the ability to get great jumps. He also has shown a plus-arm in the early going.
Zimmer is 2nd among Indians outfielders in defensive runs saved on the year, trailing Brandon Guyer, 5-4. The outfielder trails only Jose Ramirez (2.6), Guyer (2.3), and Francisco Lindor (1.9) in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) at 1.8.
Francona realizes this, and says that it has added to Zimmer’s ability to stay in games in which a lefty is brought in as a reliever.
“When we’re winning, and they bring in a lefty, we’ve never hit for him, because he’s our best center fielder,” Francona added. “So, it kind of allows you to let him have some at-bats, knowing that maybe it’s not the greatest matchup. But, we’re winning and he’s so good defensively, but give him the experience.”
If there has been an area in which the team was surprised so far with Zimmer, it has been his plate discipline. One of the main concerns with him in the minors was his strikeout rate, peaking at an alarming 37.3% in 2016, albeit through just 37 games in Triple-A Columbus.
Despite a promotion to seeing better pitchers on a daily basis, Zimmer’s walk rate over 35 games (10.3%) is up from his 33 in Columbus (9.7), and his strikeout rate (27.1%) is down (29.9%).
“A lot of times, you see young guys, especially because he’ll swing through some pitches, and then you start to see — and it’s everybody, but especially young guys — they start to cheat a little bit. And he doesn’t do that,” Francona said, adding Zimmer’s ability to avoid numerous 0-fers. “He maintains. He swings at strikes. He’s not going to chase. And it’s a real mature approach. Right when you think maybe there’s been a couple at-bats where they’re kind of getting the best of him, he’ll kind of waffle one into left field or he’ll beat a ball out.”
While the ancillary abilities can keep Zimmer on the field, part of the outfielder’s occasional days on the bench are a part of strategy. Francona, known for his ability to manage a bullpen, also has his own values regarding his bench from game-to-game.
Leaving Zimmer on the bench to start a game has given the manager the ability to use the youngster’s unique gifts in specific times of need. Francona mentions often the mental capabilities of Zimmer to be able to understand his usage and stay ready.
“He’s got a pretty good head on his shoulders,” the skipper said. “I’ve actually enjoyed him, because he’s kind of a quiet kid when you first meet him, and he doesn’t give you much back until you start to talk to him. But then, when you do, he’s pretty thoughtful and he listens.”