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Zim in LF: The time has come

Jun 3, 2014, 5:57 PM EST

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Somewhere along the way during the seven weeks it took for Ryan Zimmerman to return from a fractured right thumb, the idea was proposed to the former Gold Glove third baseman that a position change would be in his best interest.

Zimmerman has played shortstop in the majors before for one game, as he did in college, and he has long considered moving over to first base due to his throwing issues.

This idea, however, was a little outside the box. You could say – if you’re a fan of bad jokes – that it came from left field.

Would Zimmerman, who was once considered among the best defensive third basemen in baseball, take a couple hundred steps back and play left field? The 29-year-old also known as the ‘Face of the Franchise’ admitted he didn’t know what to think at first.

“At first just like anything you are a little hesitant. You don’t want to learn a new position, you don’t want to do things like that,” he said. “It was not comfortable at first. But the more I worked at it and the more we talked, the more I realized how it made sense for the team and the organization. Then it was an easy decision.”

Zimmerman has endured a well-documented struggle at third base over the last three seasons. The glove skills never left, but injuries and confidence issues affected his ability to throw across the diamond.

Sometimes Zimmerman would look like his old self and fire strikes right into the first baseman’s mit. Other times, however, he would skip or sail them for costly errors.

Part of Zimmerman’s acceptance of the change comes from those frustrating mistakes.

“The last few years at third have been tough for me. Mentally, physically, I’ve had to really grind it out. It’s been tough. To learn something new, to go out there and have fun and play ball again is refreshing, I guess.”

Really, though, what it comes down to is Zimmerman’s willingness to help his team. Being back in the lineup is the most important factor for him. The fact he’s not playing third is a secondary concern.

“Any other guy in this room would do whatever it takes to win and I think all of us realize that you don’t have unlimited amounts of years to have a team like we have right now. The goal is to win and win as many games as we can. Get to the playoffs and try to do something special. This gives us the best chance to do that.”

Zimmerman – who will be playing with Jayson Werth’s outfielders glove – will essentially be learning on the job. He played left field at Single-A Potomac in a rehab assignment, but wasn’t tested defensively as much as he hoped. Fortunate for him, he has one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball to help him out.

“I’ll just keep an extra eye on him,” Denard Span said. “I’ll make sure that when I’m shifting over, he’s coming with me. We kind of talked about communication out there a little earlier today, about when he should call the ball and when he shouldn’t call the ball. I’m pretty sure I’m just going to have to remind him about when to back up bases, little things that since he isn’t an outfielder it might slip his mind. I’m sure something new will come up and I’ll be there to help him out.”

Span is willing to help in large part because he sees the sacrifice Zimmerman is making as a teammate.

“He has an open mind towards it which I think is a good attitude to have,” Span said. “I know a lot of guys that probably wouldn’t want to do what he’s doing. I hope you guys are praising him in the press because that takes a very humble and selfless-type person to move over from a position where he was a Gold Glover to try to help this team.”

Span said he expects Zimmerman to be nervous, and admits it will be strange to look over to his right and see the former All-Star. Once the game starts, however, he doesn’t foresee any major issues with having a novice playing next to him.

“I’ve played with some bad outfielders, so that’s why honestly I’m not too worried. I’ve played with some guys who had no business being in the outfield that were out there,” Span said.

“He’s a good athlete. I’ve played with guys who were first base and DHs and they threw them out there in right field. I had to play center and right field. I don’t think that’s the case here.”

The question now for Zimmerman becomes whether the move is temporary or permanent. Bryce Harper is scheduled to return sometime in early July and will need a position to play. Zimmerman will play the majority of his games for now in left until Harper comes back. Then, everything could change.

“The thoughts about when Bryce comes back is that he’ll go back to left field and Zim will come back to the infield. That’s the initial thought. We have to see how everything goes, we just can’t say at this point,” manager Matt Williams said.

“We’ll make adjustments from a day-to-day basis. Whether we have to move him back in the infield for a couple of innings or if he gets a start at third or gets a start at first, that will kind of be a day by day thing.”

Williams made it clear there is nothing permanent about Zimmerman moving to left field… at least not yet.

“We want to clarify it’s not a position change… I wouldn’t classify it as a position change,” he said. “I think he’s a third baseman who’s been pressed into duty to play the outfield.”

Conducting an experiment such as this in a live, regular season baseball game is not an ideal situation. But given the Nationals’ current roster structure and recent problems scoring runs, they have to explore their options.

Zimmerman could very well stand out in left field in a bad way and struggle to learn the position. The Nationals, however, will be patient with the transition.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Williams said. “We’re willing to except all that comes with him going out there and the little experience that he does have. What’s most important is that he’s back.”

  1. 6ID20 - Jun 3, 2014 at 6:17 PM

    Third base has to be one of the hardest defensive positions, and left field one of the easiest. So questioning whether a third baseman can learn to play left field is like questioning whether a college calculus professor can teach algebra. Zimmerman’s biggest problem in playing left will be staying awake.

    • unkyd59 - Jun 3, 2014 at 6:32 PM

      The only point I see for concern, is that tracking a fly ball doesn’t seem to be a natural instinct. We’ve seen some good athletes take some perplexing routes, in the last few years. I guess hitting the cutoff man is more of a toss than the usual laser for third, so I’m not overly concerned… Nobody’s gonna be scared to take home on him, until he throws a couple out, though…

      • 6ID20 - Jun 3, 2014 at 6:40 PM

        Word from day one was that Zim was having no trouble tracking the ball in LF. He has no trouble following the ball right off the bat at third. Why should he have trouble in the outfield? The more he sees, the better he’ll get.

  2. Eugene in Oregon - Jun 3, 2014 at 6:47 PM

    Reposting from the game thread, in case anyone is interested:

    Okay, so I taught my last class of the term today and finally had a chance to look up some numbers. Here goes:

    In 2006, 2007, and 2009, Ryan Zimmerman played virtually every Nats game at 3B. In those three years, he averaged:

    466 ‘chances’;
    136 ‘put outs’; and
    311 ‘assists’ (most of which would have been throws to first).

    In those same years, the Nats had Alfonso Soriano playing LF for 158 games in 2006, but multiple players in the position in 2007 and 2009. They averaged:

    348 ‘chances’ (as best I can tell, this doesn’t include routinely fielding balls that are ruled hits);
    329 ‘put outs’; and
    11 ‘assists’ (Mr. Soriano had 22 in 2006, the combined LFs had 5 each in 2007 and 2009).

    Now, of course, those numbers don’t tell the whole story (e.g., range factors, ultimate zones). But they do suggest that a 3B is going to be expected to throw to first roughly twice a game, while the LF is going to be expected to catch a fly ball roughly twice a game. And while there were obviously more attempts by left-fielders to throw out a runner than are captured by the number of successful assists, my assumption is that that number pales in comparison to the number (and significance) of a 3B’s throws to 1B.

  3. Theophilus T.S. - Jun 3, 2014 at 6:56 PM

    Following Eugene’s example, I also will report here what I posted on the game thread:

    . . . [T]his experiment may lead in a variety of directions but it isn’t going to fail. Don’t talk about the Nats “moving mountains” for Zimmerman. Zimmerman is moving mountains for the team. They wouldn’t be even thinking about this if — notwithstanding all of the people forecasting different degrees of ridicule — Zimmerman wasn’t totally on board, even enthusiastic about the move. Dunn mots aside, I’m guessing Zimmerman expects to be pretty good at this LF stuff. And that he will be. This is the warmest feeling I’ve had about him as Zimmerman, Team Guy, in a long time. Folks who want to speculate on who’s going to be sold to the Nankei Haws after the All-Star Break might give some thought to what might happen at the end of the season if The Brain Trust decides the best lineup they can put on the field is Zimmerman/Harper/Werth-Spann in the OF and LaRoche at 1B.

  4. breakbad1 - Jun 3, 2014 at 7:11 PM

    I wish Ryan all the best in left field, and I admire him for making the move.

    But I foresee major problems. While I hear pre-game features on MASN, chattering about his positive attitude and his communication skills, and Matt Williams saying all they expect is for Zimm “to catch the ball and throw it in,” everyone seems to be overlooking the conversation that is going on tonight in the Phils’ locker room–and will take place in every opposing locker room while Ryan is our left fielder. And that conversation is about taking extra bases on RZ.

    I think the notes about Soriano are especially timely, as he turned out to have a dynamite outfielder’s arm–far better than we expected when he finally agreed to go to left. I believe the flaw in the LF-3B/RZ/Sori analysis is that teams were afraid to run on Soriano after he began to lead the league in outfield assists. I believe we will see the opposite phenomenon with RZ, as opponents take the extra base going to second, third, and home–and also advance to those bases on sacrifice flies.

    Despite an entire off-season to rest, and a normal MRI, we are told that the problem is a medical one. However, the player who receives more of his throws than any other, ALR, said he really “hopes Ryan finds it,” meaning he hopes that RZ recovers the mental ability to throw. Matt Williams even told us in April that TWO DAYS OFF should be enough to cure what ailed Ryan, as he was throwing so much on his own–another classic symptom of trying to “find” the throwing ability one has lost.

    Man I hope this works. But the opposition is going to run on him, and we have no reason to believe he will be able to make tag-play throws from much greater distances than the force-play throws he could not make from third.

    I hope he’s heard from Rick Ankiel, and turns out to be something in the outfield he could not be in the infield–just like Ankiel.

    • Theophilus T.S. - Jun 3, 2014 at 7:21 PM

      You are confusing a high assist count with a great arm. And Soriano’s, if you watched him, wasn’t anything to write home about — unless home plate was about 40 feet wide. A large no. of assists often means a lot of 3B coaches and runners were foolish enough to test the arm.

  5. Joe Seamhead - Jun 3, 2014 at 7:25 PM

    I have always hated it when you put an infielder in the outfield. That said? I feel better about RZimm going to LF than I did him going to first base.

    • knoxvillenat - Jun 3, 2014 at 9:00 PM

      If you hate infielders moving to the outfield you would have really hated the coach at my college team. I can’t remember how many IF’s he moved to the OF in my four years there.

  6. Sec 3 My Sofa - Jun 3, 2014 at 8:41 PM

    Wait, “willing to except“? Chase …

  7. Sec 3 My Sofa - Jun 3, 2014 at 8:44 PM

    One thing about Zim — he’s always been tops at going back on popups at third.

  8. breakbad1 - Jun 3, 2014 at 9:20 PM

    Well, if voicing my concerns about Zimm results in this kind of night from him, I am willing to make a skeptical post before every game of the season.

    Tomorrow I will cover the dynamics of hitting the cutoff man in close games…

  9. NatsNut - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:12 PM

    OMG, LOL!!!

    “I’ve played with some bad outfielders, so that’s why honestly I’m not too worried. I’ve played with some guys who had no business being in the outfield that were out there,” Span said.

    • Chazz - Jun 3, 2014 at 11:16 PM

      Under the heading, “They know who they are…”

  10. edshelton2013 - Jun 4, 2014 at 7:54 AM

    Anyone know who Span is referring to? It must have been with the Twins since Dunn and Willingham were long gone when he got here.

  11. tcostant - Jun 4, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    Once again, this confirms where there is smoke their usual is fire. Remember just a few short weeks ago, that Zimm was just working out in the OF for no good reason. Now we all know the reason.

  12. breakbad1 - Jun 5, 2014 at 1:27 PM

    On this thread above, I noted that I would soon cover the dynamics of hitting the cutoff man in close games.

    In last night’s (4 June) game summary, Mark wrote this about the Defensive Lowlight of the game:

    DEFENSIVE LOWLIGHT: Ryan Zimmerman was bound to face a tough play in left field eventually, and it happened in the top of the fifth tonight. Reid Brignac lofted a deep drive to the base of the wall, and Zimmerman (making his second career start in the outfield) got twisted around and couldn’t make the play. It was by no means an easy play, and certainly one that seasoned outfielders might not have made. The greater concern might actually have been Zimmerman’s throw after he retrieved the ball. Even though Ian Desmond ventured well into shallow left field to receive the throw, Zimmerman short-hopped the shortstop. It had no bearing on that particular play, but eventually there’s going to come a play when Zim needs to be able to make a stronger throw than that.

    End of excerpt from Mark.

    There is a huge component of wishful thinking regarding Zimmerman. It goes along the lines of–if we move him to first, the throwing problems will be overcome (setting a side how a right-hander with throwing problems executes a double-play originating with a ground ball to him.)

    In another case MW says just give him two days off (in April) from throwing and everything should be fine.

    Now the outfield is the solution–based on the belief that this problem is due to physical injury, not a very common mental problem with throwing. We are informed of a normal MRI and go on believing all the problems are physical.

    When we get into close games, teams are going to run on Zimm. They will take the extra base as I described in my post, above.

    And any time a throw to a cutoff man is involved, they will be running on him. I bet 90 percent of the people on this board have gone out to take cutoff throws in game situations. We were coached to take the throw on our glove-hand side, so we could rotate naturally in the glove-hand direction and throw with as little wasted motion–and as much speed–as we could. Consider all this, and think about how difficult Desi’s job was in that situation, taking the relay from RZ.

    For the life of me, I cannot understand why people believe a guy who cannot reliably throw from third to first, would suddenly and reliably be able to hit a cutoff man.

    I am praying that Zimm becomes another Rick Ankiel, able to throw darts from the outfield, after being unable to control throws from much shorter distances.

    But Mark’s post indicates there are more problems ahead.

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