When Ryan Zimmerman was baseball’s best third baseman

June 3

Zimmerman records a put-out in 2010. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Ryan Zimmerman-to-left-field talk has been going strong for more than two weeks. Thomas Boswell wrote the definitive piece on the switch, filled with some really searching thoughts from Zimmerman himself. And on Monday, Kilgore set the stage for this week’s grand experiment. But Chris Needham — one of the earliest and best Nats bloggers — came at the issue from different perspective on his Twitter account Tuesday morning. So I asked him to write this.

Tuesday night at Nats Park, something utterly stunning yet completely blase will happen, which seems to perfectly mirror the man around whom this event will center. With really no fanfare, no griping and no controversy, the greatest player in franchise history is moving to left. Once, Ryan Zimmerman was among the very best to ever play third. Tuesday night, he’s a left fielder, a position so unimportant defensively, the Nats buried oafs such as Adam Dunn, Wily Mo Pena and Michael Morse out there.

When you take ten steps back and look at the big picture, that’s a stunning development. Yet we’re all sort of overlooking it, owing to the fact that we’ve all focused on his recent defensive faults.

We know what Zimmerman is now, but in the process, we’ve forgotten what he was.

From about 2006 through 2009, there was not a better defensive third baseman in the league. (Not even you, Scott Rolen.) And there were flashes of utter insanity with the glove — weeks where he made play after play as perfectly as any third baseman humanly could. That’s the player we should remember. Not the sore-armed, oft-injured guy that made us all pucker up a bit when a speedy runner hit a soft grounder in his direction.

Maybe it’s lost a bit because so few people actually watched the games. The team was pretty bad then, and MASN, if available at all, was pretty hard to find. I think a lot of people understand how good he was by reputation, not by having actually seeing him. I’m a little bit cynical (read: a lot cynical) and not all that prone to nostalgia, but I saw him. I know the magic he was capable of. One quick example: In 2007, he turned (as in turned, not started) seven double plays. Stop and think about that for a second.

At his best, Zimmerman did it all. He had amazing range, routinely stabbing balls down the line or digging deep into the hole at short. He had quick-as-a-flash reflexes, always starting his glove down low, then bring it up high to snare a ball that would have nailed him in the shins or taken a funny bounce up high. Remember his quick release on those swinging bunts? There was a time you looked forward to his throws! When he was feeling confident, you could see it.

He, more than any other player, loved throwing to second to get the lead runner. Other third basemen would make a routine throw to first for a force play. Not Zimmerman. He chucked it hard, and fast, often pirouetting nearly ninety degrees to get into position for the throw to second. And more than a few times, that quick thinking and supreme confidence in his abilities created a double play out of thin air. He was utterly magical.

But you probably noticed that last paragraph was all in the past tense. That Ryan Zimmerman is gone now. We’ve known that for a while, and we’ve come to accept it. Tuesday night, when the game starts, and he’s out there in left, it won’t seem like much. But it is. The next stage of his career is beginning. But let’s not lose sight of how incredible the first half was.

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Dan Steinberg · June 3

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