Frequently asked questions about Ryan Zimmerman moving to the outfield

Greg Fiume

The formerly great third baseman is hoping he can become a passable outfielder. Gulp.

You have a hobby, dream, job, or a passion. Imagine being the best in the world at whatever that is. If not the best in the world, at least one of the very best. It doesn't matter if we're talking about playing guitar, telling jokes, or balancing a bowling pin on your nose. You're the best, one of the very best. You are lauded for your skill. You are feted for your talents. You are the best.

Then imagine waking up one day and not being very good at all.

Ryan Zimmerman was one of the very best defensive third basemen in baseball. He won just one Gold Glove, but that was probably a mistake. He was an absolute treat to watch, and the defensive numbers agreed with the eyeballs:

Year Age dWAR
2005 20 -0.1
2006 21 0.1
2007 22 2
2008 23 1
2009 24 2.5
2010 25 1.4


He had exceptional range and hands, and a quick, eerily accurate release to first. Then his shoulder stole his car keys and drove into the ocean.

He won his Gold Glove after his first shoulder injury, but the decline was quick and painful. If you don't watch the Nationals a lot, this video might shock you.

NSFW


Imagine being the best at catching and throwing baseballs and then throwing like that in front of actual people. It has to be like a dream where you're running in quicksand or can't throw a punch. This has brought the Nationals to the decision they've been contemplating for about two years, now:

Tuesday night at Nationals Park, (Ryan Zimmerman) will probably return to the Washington Nationals after missing 44 games on the disabled list with a broken thumb. And he will probably play left field.

I can't stop watching that throw. It reminded me of watching Ashlee Simpson on SNL, but Zimmerman's throw made me cringe more. Moving Zimmerman off third was an unavoidable move that was probably a little late, if anything. It's a new world for the formerly great third baseman.

We all have questions. Let's try to answer them.

Can Zimmerman hit enough to play a corner spot?

Yes. Don't be stupid.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, I work two jobs, I have kids, and sometimes I can't follow all 30 teams as much as I want, fancypants. I figured you would just answer a legitimate question with ...

Sorry. I'm in a bubble, here, I apologize. Zimmerman's career OPS+ is 121, which is convenient because that's almost exactly what he's hit over the last two seasons. That's almost identical to the career marks for Andre Ethier and Hunter Pence, Hideki Matsui and Nick Swisher. There's no guarantee that Zimmerman can keep hitting like that deep into his 30s, but he's enough of a hitter to play anywhere on the diamond.

It's worth noting, though, that NL left fielders had a 111 OPS+ last year, so the gravity of league-average might start tugging on him, especially as he gets older. For now, though, he's more than capable.

Have there been any other third basemen who made this switch?

Yes. If you're looking specifically for third basemen, Don Buford made the switch moving from the White Sox to the Orioles as a 30-year-old and, if dWAR is to be believed, didn't fare so poorly. Hubie Brooks did it, and not only was he was fairly bad in the field, but he couldn't really carry the position with his bat. Howard Johnson played a substantial portion of his 30s in the outfield, and almost everyone regrets it. Bizarro Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom did it, which is brought up only to remind you that, good gravy, that guy's in the Hall of Fame and Jeff Bagwell isn't.

There's no reason to look specifically for third-to-left guys, though. Robin Yount and Craig Biggio went from middle-infield spots to center. Guys like Pete Rose and Harmon Killebrew went all over the place. And there are horror stories, too. Like Todd Hundley

When asked today what he was going to do with his outfielder's glove, Hundley said, ''Burn it.''

Yipes. The initial Post article seemed cautiously optimistic about Zimmerman in the outfield, that it didn't seem completely unnatural.

If his arm is munched, isn't that a problem in left field?

Not as much as you might think, but still a problem. Tin-armed left fielders aren't a rare breed, with players like Juan Pierre to Barry Bonds throwing as hard as Ichiro! can probably throw with his left arm. Players can survive with a weak arm in left.

But it's an instant disadvantage. Runners will test Zimmerman. Singles will become doubles. Runners who would be held will become runners who score. And if Zimmerman's going to be an average fielder, he'll have to make up for that with range and/or superior instincts. Still possible. But the hill is a little steeper to climb.

Who is Zimmerman pushing out?

Right now? Nate McLouth, who isn't hitting a lick. But when Bryce Harper comes back, there are going to be decisions. Big decisions.

When Harper's back, there isn't going to be an elegant way to split time when the starting outfield is already Harper, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth. The smart money, then, would be Zimmerman taking over at first base, except Adam LaRoche is going bananas right now.

My guess: We're still going to see a lot of Zimmerman at third this year, with a move to first next year. Again, just a guess.

Is there any chance Zimmerman is worth his extension?

Maybe?

Zimmerman is being paid $14 million for the next five years, with $20 million guaranteed after that. When Zimmerman was a stellar defender at third, that looked like a steal. Now ... well, a lot's going to have to go right with his conversion.

If he ages gracefully, though, and keeps hitting, he'll be worth the money. If he's such a disaster in the outfield that he moves to first, he'll still be worth that money if he hits close to his career numbers, even factoring in the eventual decline. If he keeps up this level of production for the next few years, actually, he'll be a Bobby Grich-like player for nerds to rally around in below-radar Hall of Fame discussions. It's easy to forget just how good Zimmerman has been already, especially after watching a few of those lollipop throws.

If he hits, he'll play. He'll be worth the spot in the lineup, wherever the Nationals stick him. It's a shame, though, that he can't play third anymore. He used to be so good, so, so very good, there. He was the right ratio of Pedro Feliz to Pat Burrell, and it made him one of the best young players in the game.

He can still be good. He'll need to take a different route to get there, though. Hopefully he doesn't screw up that route.

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