Rookie Race Too Close to Call

adam zimmerman - washington nationals
"To me, it's clear," says Nats GM Jim Bowden when asked if Ryan Zimmerman, above, should be rookie of the year. (Joel Richardson - The Post)

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

If the waves are right and it's not too cold, you might find Ryan Zimmerman off the coast of Virginia Beach, wetsuit wrapped around his body, surfboard under his feet. If the rain holds off and the breeze isn't whistling, you might find him down the road from the apartment he's renting, a 9-iron in his grip, just the green grass below. Either way, there's no bat to swing, no glove to pound. Surfing or golf, golf or surfing, baseball a world away.

"It's pretty boring, actually," Zimmerman said. "You're so used to doing something almost 200 days straight, every single day. And you get home, and you don't have much to do."

Today, though, that will temporarily change, and the 22-year-old third baseman will have time to reflect on his first major league season, one in which he became the symbol for whatever future the Washington Nationals might have. This afternoon, the Baseball Writers' Association of America will kick off its awards season by naming the National League's rookie of the year, an honor for which Zimmerman is a front-runner, joining Florida second baseman Dan Uggla, shortstop Hanley Ramirez and pitcher Josh Johnson, among others.

"I've looked at the numbers a couple of times," Zimmerman said. "It's going to be close."

The voting by 32 members of the writers' association -- two in each National League city -- was completed at the end of the regular season, and there has been considerable debate about the merits of each candidate since -- at least, in some places.

"To me, it's clear," Washington General Manager Jim Bowden said last week. "I think Ryan should be the rookie of the year."

"I'm biased," said his former manager, Frank Robinson. "But you look at what that kid did every day, how he handled himself, the big hits he had, the way he played and the pressure situations he was in, and yeah, I think it should be him, no question."

The numbers, though, could work both ways. Uggla, for instance, set a rookie record for most homers by a second baseman, 27. He is an underdog choice because he was selected in the Rule 5 draft, generally reserved for players who have stalled in one organization -- in Uggla's case, Arizona. Uggla, who typically hit second in front of Marlins slugger Miguel Cabrera, had more homers and runs scored and a higher slugging percentage than Zimmerman, but trailed him in batting average, extra-base hits, RBI, walks and on-base percentage.

Ramirez was third in the NL in stolen bases, showed surprising pop with 17 homers, tied for fifth in the league with 119 runs scored, and had a slightly better average than either Uggla or Zimmerman, and used 11 triples to rack up more extra-base hits.

Zimmerman's case can largely be built around driving in runs. He began the year hitting sixth in the lineup, but by the final two months, he typically hit third.

"Having Frank Robinson bat him third says an awful lot about his maturity," Bowden said.

Since the rookie of the year award was first given out in 1947, no rookie has hit more doubles than Zimmerman's 47; he is tied with St. Louis's Albert Pujols (2001), Boston's Fred Lynn (1975) and Cincinnati's Vada Pinson (1959). Among NL rookies during that time, only Pujols, St. Louis's Ray Jablonski (1953) and Los Angeles' Mike Piazza (1993) drove in more runs than Zimmerman's 110.

And that doesn't take into account Zimmerman's clutch moments, game-ending homers against the New York Yankees and the Marlins, not to mention a fully laid-out, over-the-shoulder, diving catch made against Atlanta.

"You get goose bumps, butterflies," Bowden said. "Those moments bring excitement you try to contain -- but you can't, so you don't."

The race, though, is likely to be tight. Already, other players voted Uggla as their NL rookie of the year, and the Sporting News did the same. The staff of USA Today, however, held internal voting last week, and Zimmerman won.

"It's almost like it's three different types of players," Zimmerman said. "You get to pick what type of player you like the best. If it's a leadoff guy who's going to score a lot of runs, you pick Hanley. Uggla's kind of in-between, driving in a lot and scoring a lot, kind of an all-around kind of guy. I was more of a driving-in-runs kind of guy. We've got it all covered. I think it's going to be close."

Johnson is a bit of an outlier. He anchored the Marlins' staff for much of the year, and had he not been injured late in the season, his 3.10 ERA would have tied with Arizona's Brandon Webb for third in the NL, trailing only Houston's Roy Oswalt and St. Louis's Chris Carpenter.

But those who watched Zimmerman day-in, day-out, believe there is another difference-maker -- his defense. "I think it should've been better," Zimmerman said.

Still, he had the same number of errors (15) and the exact same fielding percentage (.965) as St. Louis's Scott Rolen, who won his seventh Gold Glove award.

"Certainly, I have tremendous respect for Scott Rolen," Bowden said. "He's one of my favorite players. But I really believe, based on how they played this year, Ryan should've been the Gold Glove winner, too."

Zimmerman is more diplomatic. "If we have exactly the same stats, he's going to get it every time," he said. "It's his until someone takes it away from him."

Since the season ended on the first weekend of October, Zimmerman -- still just 18 months removed from his days at the University of Virginia -- has spent his time surfing, golfing, lifting weights and working out back home in Virginia Beach. No hitting. No throwing. Just staying in shape. He will be in Washington today for a celebration, should he win, and he will return to the District to begin hunting for a townhouse later in the winter.

But in between, back to the boredom of the offseason.

"I'm kind of anxious," he said, spring training still three months away. "Now that I've got one year in and kind of had a pretty good year, it's almost like you're itching to get back out there and do it again. Before, you didn't know what you could do, and neither did anyone else. Now, you have some expectations to live up to to prove that it wasn't a fluke."

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