Ryan Zimmerman Is Enjoying Left Field, But Third Base Looms

Left field at AT&T Park in San Francisco is spacious — but compared to center field and right field, it’s not terribly complicated. No unusually high brick walls; no tricky angles. After Barry Bonds left the team, the Giants rotated some pretty mediocre defenders through left (and towards the end, Bonds was pretty mediocre himself). If the left fielder could hit, he’d probably be an overall plus, despite subpar range or weak arm. Think Pat Burrell in 2010.

The Washington Nationals’ four-game series in San Francisco this week, then, couldn’t have worked out better for new left fielder Ryan Zimmerman. The former Gold Glove third baseman made his first start in left on June 3 after returning from a 51-day stint on the disabled list for a broken right thumb. Zimmerman’s in left because Bryce Harper went down with his own thumb injury that is expected to keep him off the field until July. The Nationals moved Anthony Rendon to third — his natural position — and Danny Espinosa came off the bench to retake his old job at second. Before Zimmerman, Tyler Moore and Nate McLouth rotated in left and posted an 88 wRC+ and 58 wRC+, respectively.

But there’s much more to it. Zimmerman has been battling an arthritic condition in his right shoulder since 2012 and the injury has significantly affected his throwing motion. From 2007 through the 2011 season, Zimmerman had two of the top 10 defensive seasons for third baseman in the league, as measured by Defensive Runs Saved. Cumulatively, the only third baseman better than Zimmerman in those five seasons were Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen, again using DRS.

That all changed with the shoulder injury in 2012. A cortisone shot allowed him to play through pain — and he delivered at the plate to the tune of a .352 wOBA and 121 wRC+ — but his defense suffered. He and the Nationals hoped off-season surgery would alleviate the pain and the effects of the injury on his throwing motion, but 2013 wasn’t much better from the hot corner. Zimmerman’s cumulative DRS from 2007 through 2011 was +55; in 2012 and 2013, it dropped to -2.

Before breaking his right thumb on April 12, Zimmerman played 69 1/3 innings at third base. According to Inside Edge, he faced 19 “routine” chances and four “likely” chances and converted only 94.7% and 75% of them, respectively.

Zimmerman’s DL stint, coupled with Harper’s injury, gave the Nationals time to think about what to do with Zimmerman when he returned. And it’s not just this season at issue. Zimmerman is in the first year of a six-year, $100 million contract extension that he and the team inked just before the 2012 season. So as the thumb healed and Zimmerman began baseball activities, the Nationals asked him to focus on outfield drills. He was more than happy to oblige.

Before Wednesday night’s game against the Giants, Zimmerman seemed relaxed and almost giddy about his week as the Nationals left fielder. “It’s going well,” he told me. “It’s a lot different than playing third base. There’s a lot more time to react.”  That said, Zimmerman acknowledged that he never thought about how much goes into playing an outfield position. “There’s the footwork to get ready to catch and throw and the mental exercises of running through all the scenarios depending on the runners on base.”  He said it was a great opportunity to “learn a different side of baseball” after playing one position all these years.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” he repeated several times during the interview. There was also a strong sense of relief for Zimmerman. “Third base has been rough, physically and mentally. Nobody likes to fail.” Having the chance to move to left field has “eased his mind.”

After we spoke, Zimmerman went out and played a dandy left field. He saved a run in the bottom of the sixth with an inning-ending diving catch on a slicing line drive off the bat of Brandon Crawford.

The next inning, he charged a sinking liner and made another sliding catch. (Sorry, no embed link yet). There were also four fairly routine fly balls to left that Zimmerman handled just fine. Overall, in 78 2/3 innings in left field through Wednesday night’s game, Zimmerman caught all nine “routine” fly balls, as characterized by Inside Edge, and converted one of two “likely” chances. He’s failed to make plays on five “impossible” and “remote” chances, which means, so far, he’s not as good as Geraldo Parra or Will Venable.

All of this sounds like a happy ending for a franchise player with a career 120 wRC+ who’s signed through 2019. Not so fast, says manager Matt Williams. The Nats’ skipper was emphatic before the game that when Bryce Harper returns to the team, Zimmerman will go back to third base. He told reporters before Wednesday’s game, “We got a pretty good outfielder hopefully coming back really soon. The perfect world is, Zim would go back to third, where he’s played a long time and won a Gold Glove. And when Harp’s ready, Harp will play left. That’s the plan.” Williams added that Rendon would shift back to second and Espinosa would return to the bench.

A lot can happen between now and Harper’s return, of course. Center fielder Denard Span — who is on a hot streak after a miserable April at the plate — could go cold again. That might prompt Williams to move Harper to center and keep Zimmerman in left. First baseman Adam LaRoche could cool off after a torrid start to the season and give Williams a reason to start Zimmerman at first for a bit. There are also possible trades as we move closer to the end of July. The Nationals hold 2015 options on Span ($9 million) and LaRoche ($15 million).

For his part, Zimmerman says he just wants to give his team the best chance to win. In his view, Rendon at third gives the Nationals that chance, but then grinned and added that having too many good players is “a nice problem to have.”

Perhaps it is, as these logjams have a way of working themselves out when other players get injured or go through cold spells. For Zimmerman’s sake, let’s hope so.





Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

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james stokes
Guest

I think he just had the yips at 3rd base and a shoulder injury was just made up to cover iit up. Happens more than you think

Matt
Member
Matt

Agreed – he does fine on tougher plays that he just has to react to, but seems to have issues when he has time to set his feet and throw. It’s possible he somehow overcomes his throwing issues, but with these mental things, doubt will probably always linger in his mind.

JCCfromDC
Guest
JCCfromDC

I love it when people psychoanalyze from the stands or from TV. It’s a literally incredible skill!

More seriously, it’s possible that the shoulder injuries are wearing on him mentally as well. There is an injury – you don’t take cortisone shots as a cover story, that’s just stupid. And the long term side affects of cortisone include weakened tendons and osteoporosis, so that my be at play as well. Zimmerman still throws just fine when he throws sidearm or underhanded – he still makes the barehand play on the bunt/slow roller as anyone, because that’s a sidearm throw on the move. But when he sets his feet and throws overhand it’s not pretty – which is why he started throwing sidearm even on routine plays before he went on the DL.

Obviously Harper play. If everone stays healthy (unlikely, given the way the season has gone for the Nats) the question for the team is whether the offense/defense combination of Harper (LF), Span (CF), Zimmerman (3b) and Rendon (2b) outweighs the combination of Harper (CF), Espinosa (2b), Zimmerman (LF) and Rendon (3b). To me there’s not an obvious answer … yet. Harper is still a few weeks off, so it may well be moot.

David
Guest
David

They’re bailed out a bit by the fact that Harper, Span, and LaRoche are all LHB with real platoon splits. And on the flip side Espinosa is actually decent against LHP. So there’s a legitimate case for sitting one of those three every single game that they face a LHP and getting Espinosa’s starts there. Scratch out the occasional off day for Werth or Rendon and they can find PAs for everyone without having to put Zimm at 3B every. single. day.

Matt
Member
Matt

Sure, the injuries have something to do with it, but why wouldn’t he just throw sidearm all the time then? Rendon’s throwing motion from 3B on routine plays is pretty much sidearm (as was Ripken’s when he moved to 3B), as is the case with many infielders. I’ve seen him make tough plays to his backhand side that didn’t involve charging the ball – so I certainly think their is a psychological aspect to it.

I’m not necessarily trying to ‘psychoanalyze’ – just trying to think of explanations for why he seems fine on some plays and not on others – which seems to point to something beyond just a health issue.

AynRand'ssocialsecurity#
Guest
AynRand'ssocialsecurity#

Never seen the yips worse than Chuck Knoblauch, painful to watch.

Matt
Member
Matt

Yeah he’s the first that comes to mind for me as well. Second base is especially tough because you can’t simply just chuck the ball over there as hard as you can like you would at 3B or SS. I actually had issues with this for a while when I played 2B in high school – I was fine on turning double plays, but struggled with balls hit right at me when I could take my time and think about it. I eventually got over it for the most part, but I feel for these guys who have to deal with it on national TV.

804NatsFan
Guest
804NatsFan

I’m pretty sure the shoulder surgery and cortisone shots were not “just made up”.

Having said that, as a Nats fan, I hold my breath NOT on the tough plays from third where he charges in and sidearms it, but on the ones where he has time, double pumps… and sails it into the stands. Probably something mental there… maybe merely “this is gonna hurt a bit”.

His throws in from left don’t look strong either. (Although they still look better than Pence’s).

AK7007
Member
AK7007

Yah, they do surgery on guys all the time to cover up mental problems. Totally makes more sense than, I dunno a sports psychologist. Happens way more than I think it would. Or you know – he’s actually hurt.

Matt
Member
Matt

Pretty sure the mental issues developed after the surgery, and nobody on this thread has implied different. He’s obviously got some physical discomfort that is contributing to his throwing issues, but I don’t think it’s out of line to ask whether part of the problem is psychological. When guys have the yips they do generally alter their mechanics, usually subconsciously, so it seems like an appropriate question to raise.

AK7007
Member
AK7007

I’m pretty sure the exact quote OP was “I think he just had the yips at 3rd base and a shoulder injury was just made up to cover iit up. Happens more than you think”

I don’t know what to make of “shoulder injury was just made up to cover it up” besides snark. Because, seriously that was a dumb line when a guy has an injury. Other commenters are then looking and saying, “hey this guy can’t throw after surgery, but I’m pretty sure it’s all in his head, don’t look at that scar.” “Part of the problem being psychological” could magically go away when the pain goes away. I just don’t see the practical benefit of the speculation the way you guys do.