Friday, October 05, 2007

Nationals Review: Third Base

Expectations are funny. Especially when they're unreasonable. Yet it's those expectations that shade our perceptions of things. Sometimes I wonder if my personal motto is "Always think the worst, then you'll never be disappointed." Although sometimes it probably comes across as if that's how I always view things, it's not. I try to be an optimistic realist, two notions that frequently conflict.

All of which is a long way of saying "how the hell can Ryan Zimmerman's season be viewed as a disappointment!?!?!"

Yet, because he did so well last year and because the sky seemed the limit, his terrific season -- a year in which he played Gold Glove defense, played EVERY day, hit 73 extra-base hits (and here comes the important part) AS A TWENTY-TWO YEAR OLD! -- is seemed to be a disappointment, a regression, a so-so meh kinda year.

To be sure, his stats DID take a step back this year -- lower Batting, OBP, Slugging, RBI, etc -- but this season was far from a disappointment if you look at it outside of those expectations you had coming into the year.

It was how he played in the beginning of that year that further served to cloud the perception around him. He started out ice cold, and so did the entire team. His April was spent diving after and flailing at pitches, tapping the few he made contact with weakly for singles. The man who spearheaded the offense last year with his 110 RBI only had 8 that entire first month, fifth on the team despite having more ABs than anyone. He ended the month at .236/ .288/ .327, showing little power or patience, prompting people to question what had happened to Zimmerman.

Some argued that the loss of Nick Johnson batting behind him affected his swing. I'd agree with this in a sense, but the idea of "protection" is a fishy one to me, something that seems more myth than fact. (Which is not to say that there is no effect. The numbers pretty conclusively say that walks go up in these situations)

And therein lies the problem with Zimmerman. If protection was his problem, and he was facing more slop and junk pitched to the corners than normal, he would have been better off letting those pitches go. Instead, it seemed like he was trying to do too much, carrying the team on his shoulders and leading them to victory. He hacked and hacked again, all-too-frequently making poor contact with pitchers' pitches and swinging at pitches he should have taken.

The percentage of ABs he hit a line drive in plummeted from 22% to 17% last year. His walk rate dropped slowly, despite there being more evidence -- check the number of 2-0 and 3-1 counts he saw on the pitch data summary link here -- that he was being pitched around. And the number of double plays he hit into nearly doubled.

Despite those struggles, especially early, he adjusted. In May, he rebounded up to
.257/ .331/ .495. Good, not great. And he headed into the All-Star break with an overall line of .253/ .302/ .435. Disappointing, yes, but most of us were pretty sure he'd rebound to have a solid second half. Centered around the All-Star Break, he had a torrid stretch, hitting in 14 of 15 games, batting .357. And he would do even better in August.

With the team starting to roll (and perhaps with the emergence of a .330 hitter behind him), Zimmerman took a step forward, carrying the team through the month. He batted .299/ .359/ .607, leading the team with 7 homers, 25 RBI, 20 Runs and 9 Doubles, all monthly season highs.

Down the stretch, with Young mostly on the shelf, a new player started to emerge, a different player than the hack-first slugger from the first part of the season. Zimmerman appears to have been pitched around. His walks shot up to 18 for the month. He still wasn't hitting .300 (just .255 for the month), but he also had the fewest double plays he had in a month, a pretty good indication that he wasn't letting pitchers beat him as much.

To take that next step, he's going to continue to have to show that eye, to demonstrate to opposing pitchers that he's going to take a walk, forcing them to come into the zone more, knowing that Zimmerman isn't going to swing at as much of their slop.

It's a continual process of adjustments. Back and forth and back and forth. That's something that Zimmerman excelled at in 2006, but appeared to have gotten away from in the early part of the year. If he learned those lessons this year, and applies them next year (and with smaller fences!) he's got a good chance to have that huge breakout year we were hoping he would've had this year.

  • Offensively, Ryan Zimmerman was basically a league average third baseman. His strong finish brought him up to .266 .330 .458, and the league average 3B hit .280/ .348/ .456. When you factor in the park differences, Zimmerman comes out slightly better than average, somewhere in the order of 2-3 more runs above what the average guy would've done using the same number of outs. In other words, he's right there in the middle of the pack.

    Not bad for a down year, huh?

  • Defensively, I've made the case that he's deserving of the Gold Glove, despite the throwing errors. They're like a scratch on the door of your Porsche. It's unsightly and draws a lot of attention, but when you're behind the wheel with the car purring, you don't really give damn. You're certainly not going to toss the car out for that when it does so many other things well.

    If we look at the attempt to convert his plays into runs saved, as the one helpful Reds Blogger did, we see that Zimmerman is at the top of the league, as you'd expect.

    His numbers have him a notch below the two best in the league, having saved just over 20 runs with his glove, a number that certainly feels credible.

  • Overall, when you factor in his league average offense with his gold glove defense, Zimmerman is a clear asset to the Nats, one of the 5 or 6 best third basemen in the league.

    There's plenty of reason for optimism with that, too. Since most of his value, in a down year, was with his glove, if his bat rebounds or excels, he's going to rocket up the charts.

    Look at Miguel Cabrera for comparison. Batting wise, he was roughly 40-50 runs better than Zimmerman this season, with 132 Runs Created.

    But he gives back half of that advantage with the glove. Zimmerman is ~20 runs above average, the big-boned Cabrera roughly 10 below. That's a 30-run swing in their value just with the leather, closing a giant chunk of that gap in their value.

    It is not inconceivable that with a big season -- a .280/.370/.500 for example -- that Ryan Zimmerman will be about as valuable as Miguel Cabrera next year.

    Wrap your head around that one a little bit.

    Of course, there we go setting those unreasonable expectations again.
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