Right now, there might not be a more polarizing player among Washington Nationals fans than long-time Nat, Ryan Zimmerman.
The first baseman returned from the Injured List on June 28th with the team in Detroit. They utilized those dastardly junior circuit rules to their benefit this time, easing Zimmerman back into action as the DH in the first two games of the series.
Then when they came back to Nationals Park without the DH, it forced their hand with regards to playing time. However, in the manager’s eyes, the decision didn’t seem to be too difficult.
“Let’s be clear, if Zim is healthy, he’s our first baseman,” Dave Martinez stated last week. “With that being said, I know Howie [Kendrick] is doing well, I know [Matt] Adams is doing well, they’re going to get plenty of playing time.”
There are definitely worse problems than having three good options at first base...
Though the batting average (.234) and on-base (.275) numbers are underwhelming, Matt Adams has been slugging the ball to death (.515) most of the year. That’s certainly not someone you can use exclusively as a bench bat.
Meanwhile, Howie Kendrick continues to have a resurgent season for the Nats. He owns a remarkable .940 OPS on the season while filling a valuable part-time role for the team.
“When Zim does play, Matty is on the bench ready to go,” Martinez also said. “We can plop him in in any situation at any time, knock in some big runs, same thing with Howie.”
The starter statement from Martinez drew plenty of groans from Nats fans. But despite a somewhat lackluster .240/.315/.396 line so far this season, Zimmerman still has a lot of value to the team as the primary first baseman for the Nationals.
First off, of all the team’s options at first, Zimmerman posseses the best glove. He scoops balls in the dirt incredibly well for someone who hasn’t played the position all that long while his weaker arm is covered up given its infrequent use at the position.
On a team that wants to prioritize sound fundamentals and doing the little things, that can’t be overlooked.
Meanwhile, at the dish, not only is Zimmerman just a season and a half removed from an All-Star campaign in 2017, he was hardly a slouch last season either, posting a 118 wRC+ during his injury-hit 2018.
Yes, overall, he’s had a slow start this year, but in his 15 years in the bigs, his best three months ranked by wRC+ are August, July, and then the combined “month” of September/October. His manager has faith in his veteran turning things around this year.
A similar show of faith paid off with Brian Dozier, another notorious slow-starter, who has turned it on after a sluggish first month and a half, sporting an OPS of .931 since May 16th.
And just as they did with Dozier, the Nats are going to need Zimmerman to perform the rest of the way if they are going to continue to have success this year, even if it’s not in the everyday role that he’s had in previous years.
“I’m not going to play every single day,” Zimmerman said of his role. “I think there was no surprise coming back. Matty and Howie are having great years, and they’re going to get at bats as well, so the plan was not for me to come back and play every single day.”
The Nats have already seen Kendrick thrive in a reduced role this season as they try to make sure he stays healthy all season. You could argue they’re managing him well, ensuring that they don’t overwork him which could reduce his effectiveness.
The Nationals will hope that slightly reducing Zimmerman’s playing time from a full starter’s role will benefit him in the same way.
He’s played five of the team’s nine games since his return, collecting at least one hit in four of them, good for a .333/.364/.476 slash line. Martinez has taken notice of his quick start back off the IL.
“He’s actually starting to swing the bat really well,” the manager said after Zimmerman’s three doubles on Friday. “The thing with Zim, when he starts hitting the ball the other way like he did in his first at bat, you could tell that he’s starting to get locked in.”
“The last couple days I’ve been starting to feel a lot better at the plate,” Zimmerman explained. “Not that I was feeling bad when I first came up, but it usually takes a few games to get into rhythm, so I have been really happy with the at bats I’ve had.”
His peripherals would seem to back up that statement. Following his activation from the IL, Zimmerman has posted an average exit velocity of 92.1mph, ranking 55th among 310 hitters with at least 10 batted balls in that time span.
It’s a small sample size, sure, but it’s already a noticeable improvement on the 89.1mph average exit velocity he posted before going down in April.
If he can keep scorching the ball, Zimmerman will hope he can replicate his post-injury performance from last year.
After returning in July, the first baseman slashed .295/.374/.538 with eight home runs and 35 RBI, looking a lot like the NL All-Star starting first baseman we saw in 2017.
However, this time around, the injury that kept him out is much more concerning.
In 2018, Zimmerman missed a large chunk of time with a right oblique strain. Any injury that keeps someone out for over two months isn’t great, but a strain is somewhat run-of-the-mill for professional athletes in terms of long-term recovery.
But this year, Zimmerman is recovering from plantar fasciitis, an injury known to linger. It’s going to require careful management for the rest of the season and potentially beyond.
“I’m going to play games and play games where I have to run as much as I did it’s going to get sore,” Zimmerman explained after feeling soreness in his last game.
“I think that’s kind of what happened on rehab games, and then we treat it and do what we do every night and it gets back to basically ground zero and we go from there.”
The maintenance that Zimmerman will inevitably need to stay as healthy as possible for the rest of the season could help make the playing time decision easier for management.
As we saw in the last six games before the All-Star break, all of which were against right-handers, Zimmerman and Adams could split the playing time 50/50 against righties, with the former likely scooping up the vast majority of playing time against southpaws.
That leaves Kendrick drawing only a few starts at first, likely needing to start a bit more at second. It’s a tight squeeze to fit all three and Dozier into the lineup with regularity.
Regardless of how the playing time is split, Ryan Zimmerman still appears to have something left in the tank. Who knows, maybe even a few more late heroics for Mr. Walk-off could be the difference between a postseason berth or sitting at home this October.