When a player is performing well above expectations based on past results late in his career, one question still sadly comes to some baseball fans’ minds: Will someone please test that man for performance-enhancing drugs?
That was certainly the case after Eric Thames lit up the majors upon his return from a three-year stint in Korea in which he had a combined .349 batting average and hit 41 home runs per season. The first baseman had only batted .250 with a total of 21 home runs over 181 games with the Blue Jays and Mariners from 2011-12. But the steroid speculation ran rampant after Thames seemed to come out of nowhere (well, really Changwon) to put up a .333 average with 13 homers in his first 32 games with Milwaukee this season.
Apparently the league office was skeptical as well, as according to Yahoo Sports, Thames was tested immediately after a five-game homer streak and a four-gamer in April. The second MLB drug test during that stretch was what prompted Thames’ defiant “I have lots of blood and urine” response. He was reportedly tested for the fifth time after snapping a 15-game homerless streak with a first-inning shot off Mets right-hander Jacob deGrom on May 31, leaving Thames to wonder if MLB’s random drug testing is actually that at all.
That brings us to first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who is hardly an unknown after spending the past 12 years as a staple in the Nationals’ infield. Zimmerman appeared to be in the twilight of his career and possibly even headed out of Washington in 2016 after posting a career-worst -1.5 BatWAR (batting wins above replacement), which measures a player’s contributions to his team at the plate. That means he was actually costing the Nationals wins when he was in the lineup, the third straight year that number had dropped.
The veteran, however, has experienced an eye-opening rebirth at age 32. Through June 7, he owns a 2.4 BatWAR, has a major league-best .362 batting average and is tied for the NL lead in home runs (17) after hitting a total of 36 over his previous three seasons. Zimmerman also ranks second in MLB with a .459 weighted on-base average, which combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric and weighs each of them in proportion to their actual run value. For good measure, he’s third with a career-high 185.2 OPS+, which adjusts for league and park factors.
It’s important to note that, by all accounts, Zimmerman hasn’t done much to change his approach this season, which brings us back to the question raised at the start. Oddly enough, Zimmerman was cleared of any sinister activity by Major League Baseball in August, months after a pharmaceutical dealer named Charlie Sly claimed in an Al Jazeera America documentary that Zimmerman used PEDs.
We’d like to believe such occurrences have nothing to do with drugs, but rather the variety of factors that can contribute to any player’s surprising stretch. Batting average on balls in play can provide an indication of how much a player is performing above the norm. Typically, anything north of a .300 BABIP is considered above average, though defensive positioning, luck and how hard a ball is hit can affect that number.
Zimmerman, for example, has a .392 BABIP that ranks sixth in the majors and gives us an area in which to dig deeper. He’s also sixth in the majors in line-drive percentage (30.9) and 18th in average exit velocity (92.9), according to MLB.com, so he is hitting the ball hard. However, he’s obviously had some luck since he has never finished a full season with a BABIP greater than .334. Zimmerman is expected to be among those who will come back to Earth as his BABIP number almost certainly figures to dip over the rest of the season.
The BABIP leaderboard features many young players having breakout seasons. Minnesota’s Miguel Sano isn’t likely to break the 122-year BABIP record of .443, which was set by Jesse Burkett of Cleveland, and is due some regression after finishing with .396 and .329 marks in his first two seasons. However, he does have a better chance than most to keep a high BABIP because of his 98.8 average exit velocity – tops in all of baseball. Similarly, Aaron Judge of the Yankees isn’t expected to maintain his BABIP but may be able to avoid a severe drop as he ranks second in the bigs with a 96.3 average exit velocity that includes the two hardest-hit balls (119.4, 119 mph) so far this season.
Avisail Garcia of the White Sox is an obvious candidate to fall back as he ranked fourth in the majors with a .392 BABIP. Garcia may have been on his last opportunity in Chicago after posting a .311 BABIP while hitting a combined .250 with 32 home runs over his previous three seasons. He seems to be using an even more aggressive approach than usual as he’s swung on the first pitch an MLB-high 47.5 percent of the time and has missed on just 28.8 percent of his swings overall. Both marks are his best numbers since playing in just 23 games in his rookie 2012 season as a highly regarded prospect with the Tigers.
One might notice that the aforementioned Thames isn’t on the BABIP leaderboard. In fact, the Brewers slugger only has a .303 BABIP that’s right around the typical league average. Because of this, he’s more likely to stay on his current production path than most of the BABIP leaders — no matter how much blood and urine the league office may take from him.