A Slow Start Right Off the Bat

Ryan Zimmerman, here fanning against the Cubs on Sunday, has a .233 career average in March and April, his lowest of any month of the season.
Ryan Zimmerman, here fanning against the Cubs on Sunday, has a .233 career average in March and April, his lowest of any month of the season. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

In his first at-bat Sunday afternoon, Ryan Zimmerman dug in for an 0-2 offering from Chicago Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly. In the season's first month, nearly every trip to the plate seems to start with two strikes for Zimmerman. He looked for something off-speed, perhaps something out of the strike zone. Lilly threw a change-up. Zimmerman didn't lift his bat. Strike three.

In his next at-bat, Zimmerman got a 3-2 curveball and swung through it. His next time up, he took a shot at a 2-2 fastball. Again, no contact, and a seat on the bench. The best result on another lost day -- a fly ball to left in his final at-bat -- was one that capped an 0-for-4 performance that left his average at .222.

"I'm a defensive specialist, I guess," Zimmerman said after the Washington Nationals' 2-0 victory.

The 23-year-old would-be star's ability to laugh at his own struggles says something about his makeup. But don't be deceived. Zimmerman has had moments during this difficult April in which the burden of carrying the Nationals' meager offense has worn on him. He is an astonishing 2 for 31 with runners in scoring position, meaning he could easily have doubled his 10 RBI. Yet he, Manager Manny Acta -- and the entire organization -- do their best to mask any deep concerns.

"Everyone gets frustrated when they don't do well," Zimmerman said. "You can't get down or act stupid around here, where it's going to affect everybody else. The thing about not doing well is you can't be selfish and not root for your teammates. You have to work through it."

The reasons the Nationals profess few worries about Zimmerman are many: his enormous natural talent, his attitude, his brain. "He's a slow starter," Acta said, and his .233 career average in March and April is his lowest of any month of the season. Indeed, he hits .289 the rest of the way.

But there are also reasons for consternation, not the least of which are his raw stats now: a .256 on-base percentage, a .324 slugging percentage, just six walks and seven extra-base hits. The player to whom Zimmerman is most often compared is New York Mets third baseman David Wright, a friend and former teammate on a fall league team during their high school days in the Tidewater area of Virginia. Wright, 25, is two years older than Zimmerman and arrived in the majors in 2004, a year before the Nationals took Zimmerman from the University of Virginia with the fourth pick in the draft.

As one evaluator familiar with the NL East said: "There's no comparison between the two" right now. Their numbers aren't close; Wright's career batting average is .310, on-base percentage is .389 and slugging percentage is .534, compared with .277, .337 and .458 for Zimmerman.

"They're asking Zimmerman to be a star, and he's not ready," another scout said. A comparison with Wright can be unfair because Zimmerman doesn't have nearly the caliber of hitters around him in the way of protection. But the difference also lies in the way each approaches and grinds through at-bats.

Zimmerman's primary problem this April is that he is chasing too many pitches out of the strike zone. But he also is learning the difference between a strike that's worth swinging at and one to lay off. Because he does not swing and miss frequently, a cut at a strike that he can't really drive often results in an out rather than another chance. This spring, that has often resulted in fly balls to right field rather than drives to the gaps.

"Obviously, they're not pitching him easy, and he's just falling into the pitching plan," Acta said.

There are several factors involved in how he is being pitched, including the lack of accomplished hitters around him. But in contrast, Wright is far more capable at this point of fouling off a quality strike, or taking one, than Zimmerman is.

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