Washington Nationals Ryan Zimmerman Keeps His Cool in the Hot Corner

Ryan Zimmerman anchors third base for Nats.
Ryan Zimmerman anchors third base for Nats. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla., March 14 -- In the forgettable first inning of a meaningless game Friday night, a subtle play gave the Washington Nationals reason to be thankful they have Ryan Zimmerman. With runners at the corners, Houston's Carlos Lee hit a ball to third base. Joel Guzmán, manning the position while Zimmerman took the day off, stumbled at the ball, awkwardly corralled it, and eventually lobbed it to second.

The Nationals recorded the forceout, and there was no error. But it wasn't a double play, as it should have been. Thus, in what could have been a scoreless frame, a run came home.

There is, of course, no significance to such a play in March. But it serves as a reminder of what Zimmerman brings nearly every single day: Defense at third base that not only saves runs, but is among the best in baseball.

"He's a shortstop playing third base," Manager Manny Acta said. "He's got the best agility out of all those guys. He comes in on balls incredibly well. Maybe I'm biased, but I'm the one who gets to see him every single day, and I won't hesitate to say that he's the best third baseman defensively."

Zimmerman wants this to be the year in which those outside his own dugout start to form the same opinion. He is entering his fourth full major league season, and does not yet own a Gold Glove, given annually to the best fielders at each position in each league. He has been beaten by one of the best defensive third basemen of his generation, Scott Rolen of St. Louis in 2006; and by a complete player whose stage is the world's largest media market, David Wright of the New York Mets in 2007 and '08, a season in which Zimmerman played only 106 games because of injury.

There are lots of factors involved in the voting, which is limited to managers and coaches, and a player's offensive accomplishments are sometimes subconsciously factored in. Still, when Zimmerman is asked whether a Gold Glove is a personal goal, he quickly answers, "Absolutely."

"I take a lot of pride in my defense, and you want to be the best at everything you do," he said. "And if you're the best, you're going to win the Gold Glove most of the time. I know hitting gets involved, but if you're head over heels better, you'll win. And that's my goal. I want to be way better than everybody else."

Zimmerman's defensive reputation preceded him in Washington. When the Nationals selected him with the fourth pick in the 2005 draft out of the University of Virginia, then-general manager Jim Bowden raved about his ability, unabashedly comparing him to the greats who ever played the position, Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt among them.

"You heard Jim and [assistant GM Bob Boone] just talking about him so much, saying, 'Oh, this is one of the best guys ever,' " said Mets catcher Brian Schneider, a former National. "They were comparing him to 'Schmitty', and it's just like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever.' But then he came up, and I can't say he did anything less than that. Zim has held up his end of the bargain, because he's only done stuff to support everything they said."

The numbers, though, don't always support Zimmerman. His fielding percentage of .961 over the last three seasons combined ranks only ninth among third basemen in that time. Old-school scouts argue that it's hard to quantify defense with statistics. That doesn't mean people haven't tried. John Dewan, the developer of the database Baseball Info Solutions, publishes an annual book called "The Fielding Bible." He and his staff watch every play in every game each season, awarding pluses and minuses on each one.

Over Zimmerman's first three big league seasons, he rates as plus-33, fifth best in baseball. Of the four players ahead of him, San Francisco's Pedro Feliz is the only full-time National Leaguer.

"If he's not the best," said Houston Astros first baseman Aaron Boone, a National last year, "he's at worst in the discussion."

It's a discussion Zimmerman believes he can end if he improves. In 2007, he might have beaten Wright for the Gold Glove had he not made 23 errors, tied for the second-most in baseball. Most of those, as well as his 10 errors last year, came on throws. A shortstop in high school, Zimmerman said he occasionally thought like one at third.

"It's hard for me to not throw balls sometimes, because I think I can get everybody on every play," he said. "But sometimes you've got to realize that if it's a really tough play and you dive and bobble it a little bit, you don't have to pick it up and fling it."

This winter, Zimmerman spent less time at his Arlington home and more back in his home town of Virginia Beach, where he bought a condo "literally two minutes away" from the beach house in which he grew up. He said he ate better, and dropped a bit of weight around his waist.

"I think it helped to get away from D.C., where you go out to eat dinner every night, have some drinks, hang out with your friends every night," he said. "Even if you don't have drinks, you're eating dinner at 9 o'clock at night. At home, I just had a healthier lifestyle."

Now, he said, movements in the field are the slightest bit easier, more fluid. He figures that may save an error or two deep in August, when the length of the season weighs on players. And those saved errors could help him wrest the Gold Glove from Wright.

"Would I like to win it over him this year? Hell, yeah," he said. "I have no problem telling him that, and he knows it."

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