WASHINGTON -- The Nationals were confident in a resurgence from Ryan Zimmerman. Even after three disappointing seasons, they did not explore other options to replace him at first base. When they brought in Adam Lind, they shot down any ideas of a potential platoon.
Zimmerman was the starter, and at 32 years old with three years and $46 million left on his contract, they believed he could still be a major contributor.
The decision to stand pat has certainly paid off so far, as Zimmerman, the original face of the franchise, has showed signs of his old self. He is hitting .382/.417/.735 with three home runs and a 1.152 OPS. Nine games is an extremely small sample size, but there are a number of encouraging signs that show Zimmerman's hot start at the plate could continue for the rest of the season.
Zimmerman's high average exit velocity, which finished 10th in the Majors a year ago, garnered a lot of attention in 2016 even as he struggled to the worst season of his career with a .642 OPS and -1.3 Wins Above Replacement, as measured by FanGraphs, both career worsts.
"I had a bad year last year," Zimmerman said. "I appreciate all the help and the 'He hit the ball hard and didn't get anything for it.' The truth is I didn't have a very good year."
That much is true, but the encouraging peripheral stats predicted a rebound in 2017. Zimmerman had conversations this spring with his teammate Daniel Murphy, a self-professed hitting nerd, who prompted him to improve on his launch angle. So far, Zimmerman has seen slight upticks in both his exit velocity, which has improved from 93.4 mph in 2016 to 95.2, and launch angle from nine degrees in '16 to 11 degrees this season.
Zimmerman is also among the league leaders in barreled balls, a metric measured by Statcast™ in which the combination of exit velocity and launch angle creates a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. After Wednesday's games, Zimmerman had five barreled balls, just behind the Major League lead, set by Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and Tigers outfielder Nicholas Castellanos with seven.
Zimmerman's line-drive percentage is currently 25 percent, which would be his highest since 2014 (21 percent). And he is swinging at more pitches inside the strike zone (59 percent) more frequently than his career norms (58.3 percent).
"Zim is on the ball. He's not fooled by too many pitches," said manager Dusty Baker, who also pointed to Zimmerman's increased aggressiveness at the plate. "He's getting more and more confident and feeling more and more like Zim every day. And he's hit the ball hard, even when he's making outs, he's hitting the ball hard."
And perhaps the most encouraging sign for the Nats is that Zimmerman is healthy.
Zimmerman was not limited this offseason by any lingering injuries or surgeries. He was not slowed during Spring Training by any aches or pains as he prepared for the season. So after a plethora of injuries the past three seasons -- shoulder, plantar fasciitis, oblique, wrist -- Zimmerman is playing without any hindrances.
If Zimmerman can stay on the field and maintain his current rates, he could be in for a huge season.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.