The Washington Nationals hear the fans’ cries for Ryan Zimmerman to start more games.
Pound-for-pound, Zimmerman has been the Nationals’ best hitter so far this year. The long-time Nat has slashed .295/.327/.590 with eight home runs in just 105 at-bats, giving him a 146 wRC+ that is the best on the team among those with at least 10 plate appearances.
Despite his production, Zimmerman has started just 21 of the Nationals’ 58 games this season, leading some fans to call for the franchise icon to start more frequently.
Those calls grew louder when his fellow first baseman, Josh Bell, stumbled out of the gate offensively — though he has since bounced back and been one of the better hitters on the team in the last four weeks.
Nationals manager Dave Martinez has stood firm though. He has kept Zimmerman in his part-time role to try to keep him healthy for the whole year, rather than overusing him while he’s hot, potentially leading to similar injuries that have plagued him in recent years.
“He’s been great, he really has,” Martinez told reporters after the series in Tampa Bay. “The biggest thing for me and him is to keep him healthy. He’s able to give us two games these two days, at first base, which was huge.
“He came up for us big-time for us today, but he’s an unbelievable hitter, he has been his whole career. When he’s healthy he can do these things.”
This role and usage of Zimmerman was the plan all along for the Nationals in 2021.
They traded for a near-everyday first baseman in Bell to make 120-140 starts. This meant they could have Zimmerman start once or twice a week and be a weapon off the bench in-between.
The only question that remained coming into the season was how would Zimmerman adapt to his new part-time role having been the team’s primary first baseman since moving over from the other side of the diamond in 2015.
“To be honest with you I really had no idea what to expect,” Zimmerman said.
“I know where I’m at in my career and as much as I want to play every day, it’s not best for me, and honestly, I don’t think it’s best for the team.
“So, I didn’t know what kind of numbers I would put up, and obviously we’re still a long ways to go, so I still have work to do, but I’ve been happy with the way I’ve started and hopefully I can continue it, but you don’t get any awards for having, I guess, a good first two months. But yeah, it’s been good, my body has felt great.”
If Zimmerman’s role this season sounds familiar, that’s probably because it is, as the 36-year-old offered up a pretty memorable example to show why he thinks he’s playing enough.
“I always use this analogy, it’s the Howie Kendrick analogy,” Zimmerman explained.
“Everyone said the same thing about Howie, and Howie — I’ve talked with Howie a bunch, obviously when he was in that role, and kind of a little bit before I decided to do it this way, and that’s why I’m producing, because I get those days off.”
Everyone remembers how keeping Kendrick well-rested in 2019 went for that team.
Despite a couple of injuries along the way, Kendrick came up with clutch hit after clutch hit during the regular season and that carried over into the postseason where he hit the eventual game-winning home runs in Game 5 of the NLDS and Game 7 of the World Series.
This came after, just as there are now, fans were calling for Kendrick to start more games. In that case, it was over the slow-starting Brian Dozier and, at times, over Zimmerman.
That’s what makes Zimmerman so hesitant to want to play more than he is right now.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, you should play more,’ and that’s not what I signed up for,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, can I play more in small spurts? Or can I play — like at the beginning of the year when [Bell] had to miss time with the COVID stuff, I can do it for a week or two at time.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind, or anyone’s mind, that I can’t play every day for a little while, but it’s just a matter of time when I’m playing every day my body starts to break down, and that’s not what I signed up for and I don’t think it’s beneficial for the team.”
In 2019, the Nats’ skipper stayed true to his word with Kendrick and didn’t waiver until October when he unleashed the veteran in almost every game to great effect.
Washington may not have a World Series title had Martinez pushed him to play more in the regular season.
That success makes it even harder to see him deviating from a similar plan in order to attempt to keep Zimmerman as productive as possible this season...
“We know Zim from playing every day, this is something new for him,” Martinez told reporters in May.
“He’s taking to it really well, and like I said, the key now is to keep him sharp, and keep him ready and try to get him in there when we deem we can.
“We’re doing the best we can with that and he understands the situation, but he’s ready, which is also awesome. We had another guy like that as you guys all know, with Howie [Kendrick].
“As much as I want to play these guys every day, we’ve got to keep an eye on them. We got to keep them fresh.”