Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing woes have gone away


(Katherine Frey / The Washington Post)

The issue of Ryan Zimmerman’s surgically repaired throwing arm may not be finished, but it can safely be downgraded from crisis.

Zimmerman’s erratic throws hovered over the Nationals for the first portion of this season, each ball hit to their franchise player causing hearts to leap into throats. But over the past month, any worry has been residual. Zimmerman has made 49 throws since July June 9, and only one of them has resulted in an error. His throws have been stronger and more accurate. If he was broken before, now, it seems, he’s fixed.

There was no one moment when Zimmerman solved his throwing woes, which saw him commit 10 errors and record only 98 assists in the first two months of the season. Zimmerman stuck to his usual pregame routine. Arm strength returned in his shoulder. The process was gradual, steady improvement, and it is still ongoing.

“This whole year is going to be a work in progress,” Zimmerman said. “That’s kind of how it is when anyone has any sort of surgery. You have ups and downs, things like that. You just continue to try to make it stronger and be consistent. That was the thing at the beginning of the year – it was just so inconsistent. We’re starting to get a little bit more consistent and having a lot more good weeks than bad weeks, is the best way to put it.”

The results have been promising. Zimmerman, though, cautioned it may not be permanent. His rehab from surgery has become a year-long endeavor. The worst is behind him, but what’s ahead is not quite certain.

“There’s times where I’ve felt really good, and there’s times where I don’t feel that great,” Zimmerman said. “It’s just one of things where, unfortunately, there’s no way to predict how I’m going to feel or what’s going to happen. Lately, it’s been feeling better than it was at the beginning of the year.”

Bench coach Randy Knorr assists Zimmerman many days with his throwing regimen. Early in the year, Knorr said, Zimmerman lacked the strength to cock his arm into a regular throwing position. Some days he could lift his arm as high as he wanted, and other days he could not. On those days, the ball sailed.

As his shoulder has fully recovered from surgery, the strength has returned, and Zimmerman can find a more natural, consistent throwing position. In baseball lingo, Zimmerman is “getting on top of the ball” better, which leads to less sidespin on the ball. The flight of Zimmerman’s throws is more penetrating and less loopy.

Maybe that difference can be seen by an observer, but Zimmerman cannot sense it himself. He only worked to make his arm stronger, and he kept making his throws. That’s it. Every improvement, for him, flowed from that work.

“I don’t really know what arm slot is,” Zimmerman said. “Everyone talks about arm slot, but you just kind of throw where you always throw. Pitching obviously is different. When you play the field, sometimes you just throw it however you can throw it. We don’t have the luxury of being able to sit there and do whatever we want with it until we want to throw it. I’d love to throw from the same arm angle every time, but there’s a guy running as fast as he can to first base that doesn’t want me to. It’s just one of those things where, it’s kind of get it and go. I’ve never once thought about arm angle, to tell you the truth.”

And the Nationals want Zimmerman to throw without thinking. “It’s like, if you have to think about stabbing a piece of meat on the table – ‘Where’s my elbow go?’ ” Manager Davey Johnson said. “You’ll probably miss the meat, you know?”

Zimmerman has tinkered with his throwing motion since he returned from abdominal surgery in the middle of the 2011 season. In spring training and early in the season, Nationals trainers limited Zimmerman’s throwing regimen in order to prevent a setback in his recovery from November surgery. As the season has worn on and Zimmerman has thrown every day, the motion has become rote.

“I just think he’s much more comfortable,” Johnson said. “He’s more natural. I knew it was going to take him a while to feel comfortable and trust it. So he’s just doing normal reactions and normal movements, rather than some pre set-up to try to get something on the ball over there. I like where he’s at over there, and I think he’s only going to get better.”

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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James Wagner · July 10, 2013

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