FanGraphs recently added the ability to view Inside Edge fielding data breakdowns to player pages, and it’s a fun way to look at defense. Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez converted the highest percentage of “Remote” (defined as being 1%-10% likely) plays, not unexpected given his stellar defensive reputation, while Brandon Crawford and Pedro Florimon tied for the largest raw number of such plays, at 24, also not unexpected since they are shortstops who are mostly in the big leagues for their defensive value. You can view this data in any number of different ways, really. By definition, no major leaguer converted a single “Impossible” play, but the two players who had the most such plays head their way were Cincinnati outfielders Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo, who had a combined 250 “Impossible” plays. That the top two players both played on the same team tells us… something, probably.
But we’ve already looked at Crawford’s greatness, and Florimon just really isn’t that interesting. What I’m thinking about today are the 90%-100% plays, defined as “Almost Certain / Certain” for our purposes. Those are the plays that are so routine that most every major leaguer should be converting nearly every such opportunity into an out, and for the most part, they do. Nine qualified big leaguers made 100% of those plays last year, including the defensively-maligned Choo, which tells you a little something that his issues were more with his routes and speed in center than they were with making plays on the balls he got to. (Which sort of makes him sound like the Derek Jeter of center fielders, doesn’t it?) 44 players converted at least 99% of those plays. 60 got to at least 98%. Every team made at least 97.2%; as a whole, the sport converted 98% of such plays.
This is all as you’d expect. Those are the routine, mundane, barely thought-of plays you see a dozen times a night. They’re just short of extra points in football; they’re made all the time because they should be made all the time. You don’t notice them until they give you a reason to. The rankings tend to overweight outfielders, because there’s of course a smaller likelihood of making a throwing error from the outfield. But someone has to be pulling up the rear, and that’s what I wanted to know: which big leaguer (non-catchers, for simplicity) was the worst at making the easiest play?
Among qualified players, it’s Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman, who converted 93.9% of his 294 opportunities, and while that might not sound so bad, it means that he blew 18 of the easiest plays in the game. By comparison, Manny Machado blew only nine, and he had 96 more opportunities to do so. That’s maybe not surprising, either, because Zimmerman’s throwing issues have been well-chronicled over the years, leading to increased conversation that he’ll move to first base in 2015 after Adam LaRoche’s contract is up, and he’s already begun to see some time there this spring.
You already know that Zimmerman isn’t the third baseman he used to be, of course. Last year, among the 29 third basemen to play at least 500 innings, he ranked 17th in DRS and 25th in UZR/150, and he won’t have Miguel Cabrera and Michael Young around this year to provide obvious “at least I’m not them” examples. (Though he may have the benefit of Carlos Santana.) This is a continuing trend. In 2007, he was among the best in the game. In 2008, he was above-average; In 2009, he was among the best in the game, worthy of being compared to Evan Longoria in completely realistic discussion. In 2010, he was among the best in the game. An injury-shortened 2011 was rough; 2012 was maybe mildly better, leading into 2013’s worst-to-date after offseason right shoulder surgery.
But for as much attention as Zimmerman’s awkward style of throwing and resulting mistakes have received, his woes aren’t all throwing errors. Here he is in the fourth inning on June 29 of last season behind Taylor Jordan with Marlon Byrd at the plate:
It’s not just the throws across the diamond, it’s also the range. We have a fielding stat called RngR, which is “Range Runs Above Average.” Between 2007-10, Zimmerman was in the 11-15 runs above average range three times in four years, with 2008’s injury-shortened campaign being the exception. In 2011 and 12, those numbers both started with a “negative” in front of it; in 2013, it was -10.2.
One reason is that Zimmerman’s range has suffered. Zimmerman has played shallower the past two years than earlier in his career, about two steps behind third base, Johnson said. Johnson believes Zimmerman has been cheating in to give himself a slightly shorter throw to first.
It’s like cheating on the fastball when the bat speed starts to go, only to find that you’re more vulnerable on breaking pitches. This is, hopefully, one of the many benefits of MLBAM’s recently announced tracking system, which Jay Jaffe jokingly has dubbed “OMGf/x.” Maybe at some point in the near future, we could call up a page and identify exactly where Zimmerman was positioning himself, as easily as we can look at a spray chart of his hits. We’re not quite there yet, so the best we can do is look at the limited video of his play this spring to see if, with the benefit of several more months off that right shoulder surgery behind him, there are signs of improvement.
And I do mean limited, by the way. Perhaps I’m jaded by the fact that every single non-split squad Dodger game has been televised this spring, but a shocking amount of Nationals games, particularly the early ones, were not broadcast by either side — and then Zimmerman missed several days of play with soreness in, wait for it, his right shoulder.
So we’ll go with what we’ve got. Here he is on March 19 against Jose Altuve and the Astros, and we’re already not off to a good start, as another sidearm throw pulls LaRoche off the bag, charitably being scored a “hit”:
Later in the same game game against L.J. Hoes, a similarly loopy throw was more on target:
But the on Sunday against leadoff batter Ruben Tejada, clearly playing in against a right-handed batter, he’s saved an error only because LaRoche tagged the runner:
This is three plays, and three spring plays at that, and so this isn’t a fair sample. It can’t be. Don’t take it as though it is, but it is what we have so far (there’s a few others, probably, but no need to explode your browsers any further than I have already, and against Ike Davis yesterday, he was shifted so far that he was basically a shortstop), and so the point here isn’t to draw conclusions that Zimmerman will or will not be a viable defensive third baseman this year. It’s to point out that he was a detriment to the team last year, and on a team that will almost certainly be the consensus pick to win the NL East after Atlanta’s recent pitching injuries, whether or not he can still handle the position remains one of the biggest open questions for the 2014 Nationals. That’s especially the case given that they have a perfectly capable third baseman in Anthony Rendon available — though he’ll almost certainly be the starting second baseman, Matt Williams still hasn’t quite officially named him as such over Danny Espinosa — and a first baseman who has been essentially replacement-level in three of the last four seasons.
Williams claimed earlier this spring that Zimmerman would play third base “99 percent of the time,” and ideally that would indeed be the plan. But for a team with legitimate World Series hopes, it’ll be interesting to keep an eye on Zimmerman’s defense (and LaRoche’s offense) and see if that’s even possible. Again, don’t overreact to two or three GIFs here. It’s just on Zimmerman to show that he can still be a valuable defensive third baseman this year, and the spring hasn’t exactly been flawless in that regard.