Filtering by Tag: Ryan Zimmerman

On Ryan Zimmerman and Third Base

Michael Young switched positions three times; Chipper Jones moved to left field in 2002 and back to third in 2004; Albert Pujols did not have a set position until 2004; Miguel Cabrera just switched positions for the fourth time in his career. There is a long list of very accomplished players who have moved because their team or career depended on it. Ryan Zimmerman will soon join that list, and will be better for it. Zimmerman committed his first error of the season (a routine throw to first base in the third inning) during the first game of the season in New York. While it was disconcerting as Zimmerman struggled with his throwing in 2013, it did not sound any alarms.

Those alarms went off full-blast when Zimmerman was removed from last Saturday’s game versus the Atlanta Braves in the sixth inning when he complained of shoulder pain after committing another throwing error that allowed Andrelton Simmons to reach base on what should have been a routine out. While the fallout from Zimmerman’s absence (he only has one at-bat since Saturday) has been relatively subdued, it is no less alarming and changes how Zimmerman and the Nationals should plan for his future.

Zimmerman is in the first year of his six-year extension and remains one of the franchise’s centerpiece players, so any notion that he can, or will, be traded are misconceived. Players like Zimmerman are awarded long-term extensions because their general manager and ownership agree to support them when they suffer lumps in their career such as the one he is currently dealing with; he has reached a point at his career where the Nationals will accommodate his interests with equal consequence as the rest of the organization.

That does not change that the Nationals have a serious dilemma for the remainder of the season. Plans to eventually move Zimmerman to first base were actualized last offseason when manager Matt Williams told Zimmerman to purchase a first base glove and to anticipate playing roughly 15 games at the position this year. But incumbent first baseman Adam Laroche’s hot start this season has quieted those plans. A free agent next year, the likelihood of Laroche’s return is all-but-nonexistent now that Zimmerman’s condition is known, but the possibility for a big year has not stopped the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell from writing that the Nationals should still consider trading him midseason to move Zimmerman across the diamond.

This all assumes Zimmerman can no longer play third base. Revising his announcement Monday that Zimmerman has arthritis, Williams said that he has a degenerative shoulder condition. Zimmerman is not going on the disabled list, and will rejoin the lineup Wednesday night. Because it is his right shoulder, he should still be able to hit, and has not demonstrated any difficulty doing so early in the season. The problem is his defense, which has ranged from sneaky-bad to abhorrent. Even when Zimmerman cut down on the throwing errors in the second half of 2013, his mechanics remained heavily flawed and his arm strength missing, problems that have resurfaced even though the Nationals claimed he would be able to rebuild his throwing strength after a healthy off-season.

Williams announced that Zimmerman is working on yet another change to his mechanics, but even if it restores his arm-strength, there is little doubt he will be playing first base by 2015. Similar to Boston’s Mike Napoli, who has a degenerative hip condition, the Nationals will need to build a regimen around preserving Zimmerman’s shoulder as long as possible. That means no unnecessary wear and tear: less batting practice, fewer pre-game grounders, and eventually, not throwing across the diamond. A degenerative shoulder is different from a structural injury like Danny Espinosa’s torn rotator cuff, which healed itself with time. Years of playing third base have taken its toll on Zimmerman’s body; it will be relevant for the rest of his career and will likely affect his quality of life after his playing days are over.

None of this means the Nationals are in imminent danger. Zimmerman has still been able to hit for power despite his shoulder problems. Napoli, who was diagnosed before the 2013 season, had one of the best years of his career and received a three-year extension from the Red Sox headed into his age-32 season.

Criticism of the plan to move Zimmerman to first base stems from the notion that he is less valuable at a position with more depth around the league. However, Zimmerman’s offensive numbers would still have been top-10 at first base in 2013, and it stands to reason his offense would improve from playing the less strenuous position. That criticism also unfairly assumes Zimmerman would be a liability at first base. Zimmerman is as athletic as anyone who has covered first for Washington in its 10-year history, and 97 of his 135 career errors (72 percent) have been throwing errors. Moving him to first means less throwing and fewer assists; reducing the strain on his shoulder and not only improve his defensive numbers (he has committed the third most errors in baseball since 2012) but making him an overall more valuable player.

While Zimmerman is in better position now than he was this time last year, when he committed 10 errors in nine games leading to 11 unearned runs and a 2-7 team record, the baseball gods have told him his days at third are numbered. The Nationals and Laroche have a $15 million mutual option for 2015, his age-35 season. If declined, Zimmerman will earn only $1.6 million more to play first base in his age-30 season. At first base, he will rarely have to throw the ball and the Nationals will likely configure their defense so he does not receive the ball on cut-off plays from the outfield.

While moving to first base likely will eclipse his value as a star player, it is necessary for the team to remain competitive long-term. There is no reason he cannot be a Gold-Glove caliber player at first base, or at least be trusted on defense again; at third, he is a liability and in decline.

Move Zimmerman to Third

The Zimmerman to first movement has quieted down lately. As the season hasprogressed and the surgically repaired shoulder healed, he looked more and more like himself with each passing month. To put some numbers to this Ryan Zimmerman has 21 errors on the season. If he finishes with those numbers it would be the second most of his career and the 15 throwing errors would be tied as the most with the 15 he had in 2007. From right there it is somewhat obvious in the error department that Zimmerman is the player he's always been, but of his 21 errors seven of them, five throwing, came after the All-Star break. In the last couple months of the season his throws have looked sharper and he has displayed some of that old Zimmerman flair at third.  

Recently Zimmerman admitted that it took him longer to heal than he thought but he didn't want to say anything when he was having the problems because he didn't want people to think he was making excuses. The more troublesome part of Zimmerman's defense was his sudden drop in advanced stats like UZR, and the loss of ability was noticeable with the naked eye. The amount of balls that sneaked under the glove of Zimmerman was one of the more troubling aspects. He was getting to the balls but for some reason couldn't get the glove low enough to scoop them up. One of Ryan Zimmerman's strengths has always been his ability to start the glove low and bring it to the ball, and at that point he wasn't able to. This too has changed.  

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The Harper and Zimmerman Effect

The Nationals are currently sitting at 34-34, something that seemedunfathomable at the beginning of what seemed to be a promising season. Much has been written about what some perceives the Nationals problems to be: errors, Danny Espinosa, Zach Duke and offensive ineptitude to name a few. Something that has been mentioned, but not truly quantified or comprehended, is how much the time missed by Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper due to injuries has affected their fortunes this season.

The Nationals' longest losing streak this season is four games. They have accomplished this twice. The first time after Zimmerman went on the DL, the second time after Harper injured himself in Los Angeles. The Nationals longest winning streak is five games. This occurred the day after Zimmerman returned from the DL, one of the few times both were in the lineup together this year. Just from a general perspective we can already see what these two mean to the team.


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Don't Forget About Ryan Zimmerman

There were two moments that sold me on Ryan Zimmerman. I was impressed by him when his first MLB homerun came off of Billy Wagner in the top of the ninth in New York with the Nats trailing 4-3. That didn't sell me on Zimmerman, though it did foreshadow some of what was to come. The moment when I was sold on Zimmerman as a defensive player came on April 21 of that year. With Brian McCann on second Pete Orr hit a flare into shallow left field. It was too close to the infield for Soriano to have a play and it appeared to be falling too fast for Zimmerman to make a play, but he did. He dove headlong, caught the ball, and drew the fist pump and point from pitcher, John Patterson. It was, and still is, one of the most amazing defensive plays I have ever seen. What made it even better is how Zimmerman slid on the wet grass with streams of water trailing him and his glove hand outstretched displaying the ball. In my mind that is still Zimmerman's best defensive play, and he has made a lot of spectacular ones. 

The next moment should be obvious to everyone. It is Ryan Zimmerman's walk-off homerun against the Yankees on Father's Day, 2006. I had season tickets that season, but my father didn't. He decided he wanted to go to the game fairly close to the last minute, and there were single seats still available. My father was nowhere near me, but we were both at the same baseball game. The game itself was a good affair with Michael O'Connor limiting the Yankees to just two runs, but Wang held the Nationals to one and looked to be going for a complete game. With Marlon Anderson having reached base ahead of him and one out having been recorded Zimmerman wasn't the Nats final hope, but pretty close to it. Now every Nats fan that has walked up to Nats Park from behind the scoreboard should know what happened next. Wang threw too good of a strike ahead in the count 1-2 and Zimmerman deposited it in the Yankees bullpen. I do not know if I have ever been happier leaving a baseball game than I was that day. ​

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The Nats and Left Handed Power

A common refrain this off-season, as the LaRoche drama has dragged on is that the Nats need more left-handed power. Last season the Nats two main left-handed batters where Harper and LaRoche. With Harper moving from second to fourth in the line-up as expected, and Span at the top of the line-up the Nats will have the same number of left-handed batters, but they will lack the power that LaRoche brought. As has been pointed out before, Morse is just as effective vs. right handers hitting .292/.343/.487 for his career compared to .274/.348/.495 for LaRoche. With that little of a difference between the two the Nats don't have much need for more left handed power.

A league average left-handed batter hit .260/.332/.416 against right-handed pitching in 2012. Several of the Nats middle of the order bats are better than this. Ryan Zimmerman for his career is hitting .273/.333/.478 against right handers, Jayson Werth .260/.352/.436, and in his breakout season of 2012 Ian Desmond hit .289/.336/.492. All of them hit left handers better, but that isn't the point. The Nats have right-handed batters that can approximate the production of a league average left-hander. 

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Ryan Zimmerman, Defense, and First Base

Over the last couple of games Ryan Zimmerman's arm has become an issue, or put more aptly it has been made an issue by some. Before going very far in this I would like to introduce the Bill James defensive spectrum (read more about it here). The basic concept of it is that the most difficult positions defensively are in order catcher, short stop, second base, centerfield, third base, right field, left field, and first base. First base is the easiest position to fill defensively and not much defense is expected from that position. It is where an NL team might stick a player like Adam Dunn or Michael Morse to hide their defensive flaws. The limited defensive ability required to play the four bottom positions is why the saying exists, "Defense up the middle, power at the corners."
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Masterpiece Theater at the Hot Corner

If you didn't watch last night's game you should look up some highlights. Don't get too drawn in by the Morse grand slam or Harper's two run blast. Pay more attention to the man at the hot corner. The man who has been the one constant presence on the Washington Nationals since 2005. Against the Mets last evening Ryan Zimmerman did a few Ryan Zimmerman things and they should be admired as much as any painting hanging in The National Gallery of Art.

If the DC art scene knew what was best for them they would put on entire exhibits of Ryan Zimmerman's defense. The man is an artist at third and can paint with his glove hand while sculpting with has bare hand. There were three classic Ryan Zimmerman defensive plays last evening. There was the always popular diving for the hard hit liner and throwing out the runner from his knees, and then there was the snagging a sharp grounder on the backhand side and throwing out the runner while falling backwards into foul territory, and finally the ever popular cutting across the infield grass and throwing a to second while perpendicular with the bag to start a double play.

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