After the way Ryan Zimmerman handled Spring Training, taking the majority of his at bats on the back fields in controlled minor league action and appearing in just one Grapefruit League game, it was almost guaranteed that any struggles he had would draw additional scrutiny.
When he was slow out of the gate in 2018, the way Zimmerman, Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo, and the Nationals’ first-year manager Davey Martinez handled things was a topic all three were asked about repeatedly.
They were, however, fairly consistent in how they explained their thinking.
“Zim is getting a lot of at bats on the back fields,” Rizzo told MLB Network Radio hosts Steve Phillips and Eduardo Perez in March.
“We like that controlled environment for our veteran players. He likes it out there. He can get ten at bats in a day if he wants to, he leads off every inning, kind of the way he likes to do it.”
“We worked out a plan for him and it worked out really well,” Martinez said before Opening Day, when Zimmerman didn’t play in the final exhibition game of the Spring.
“He’s healthy, he feels good, he made a comment about how this is the best Spring he’s had and he feels great, so I’m looking forward to getting him on the field Opening Day, and we asked him — you know, how he was feeling, he said he feels great — we asked him if he wants to get some at bats today, and he said he wants to stick to the game plan, so that’s what we did.”
Zimmerman played in 33 games, making 28 starts between March 30th and May 9th, with a .217/.280/.409 line, three doubles, and five home runs in 125 plate appearances, but a right oblique injury landed him on the Disabled List and ended up costing him 58 games.
He didn’t return to the lineup until July 20th, and a week before he came off the DL, a report from Fancred’s Jon Heyman suggested that it was calf and oblique injuries that were issues in Spring Training and as he worked to return to the lineup.
“According to an N.L. executive, there was a calf injury in spring,” Heyman wrote, adding that there was, “... also a recurrence recently (though, the Nats continue to call it only an oblique).”
Heyman also mentioned what he called the “grand experiment” the Nationals conducted with Zimmerman in Spring Training, writing that, “Zimmerman missed almost all Spring Training with a calf injury,” then, as he worked his way back from the oblique injury, “it turns out that when he tried to ramp things up at one point, the calf acted up again – yes, the calf injury no one seemed to know about.”
“Zim says his injury is the oblique,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies in a July 19th appearance on the show.
“I believe Zim. He’s never backed off from that since Spring Training. What I will say is that the reason that Zim took most of his at bats on the minor league side and not on the major league side is not because he had an injury that we were not disclosing. We chose to do Spring Training for Zim in that way because we wanted to control the atmosphere of the way he was participating in Spring Training.
“We wanted to get his at bats to allow him to move around and run as he felt comfortable doing so he wouldn’t injure any part of his body during Spring Training. So that was what that was all about.”
“You know in Spring Training everyone talked about calves and all that stuff,” Zimmerman said a few days later, “and I had soreness, like I told you guys I had soreness.
“In Spring I had calf soreness, along with other soreness, and we were safe with it, I think we did the ultrasound to make sure nothing was hurt and it wasn’t so we took our time, and because we took our time, like I’ve told you before, we didn’t have enough time for me to get at bats, so that was the reason why I was going to the back fields. I wasn’t running on the back fields because we had done so much to get me to that point, with only a week left before Opening Day, to put me into a game and say, ‘Alright, just take it easy,’ that doesn’t usually work. If I hit a ball into left-center, if somebody gets a single to right I’m going try to go first-to-third, so instead of doing that and risking that after all the work we had done to get me ready for Opening Day, we just got the at bats on the back fields and felt like I was ready to go.”
“The calf stuff with this,” he added, “I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
“Do I have soreness sometimes, yes, of course, am I injured, absolutely not.
“Same thing with Spring Training, was I injured, absolutely not. Was I sore? Yes.
“Did we take it easy? Yeah. Were we smart? Yeah. So I wish I had something for you. But I don’t, I don’t know.”
Zimmerman was able to stay healthy after returning from the DL stint, playing in 52 games between July 20th and September 26th and posting a .295/.374/.538 line, 18 doubles, and eight home runs in 198 PAs over that stretch, which left him with a .264/.337/.486 line and 21 doubles and 13 home runs in 85 games and 288 PAs overall in what ended up a 1.4 fWAR campaign.
Zimmerman tweaked his back in the final week of the season, however, and missed the last few games, with Martinez explaining at the time that they didn’t feel the need to push it.
“The last thing I want is for him to go re-injure himself really bad and have to rehab for two months over the winter time,” the manager told reporters, as quoted by Washington Post writer Chelsea Janes.
“He came back and did really well for us for two months. It was awesome . . . he’s our quiet leader. When he’s out there, we play a lot better.”
The WaPost reporter noted that coming off his .303/.358/.573, 33 double, 36 home run, 3.3 fWAR campaign in 2017, “... the Nationals let the veteran choose his own path,” in the Spring though, “many in the front office were skeptical about the approach,” and in 2019, Martinez added late this season, it’s likely they’ll take a more traditional approach.
“It all depends on Zim, really, and how he comes to Spring Training,” Martinez said. “I told him, look, getting you in games in Spring Training, getting you ready for the season will help. Last year we did things differently, but I need you to get going. That being said, we have to be smart, also.”
Eh, they’ll figure it out before Spring Training...