Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman Makes His Case for a Gold Glove at Third Base

While Ryan Zimmerman may play third base as well as anyone, he may not win his first Gold Glove as the award can be a popularity contest and some voters rely on old statistics.
While Ryan Zimmerman may play third base as well as anyone, he may not win his first Gold Glove as the award can be a popularity contest and some voters rely on old statistics. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

If Ryan Zimmerman wins his first Gold Glove award this year, his campaign will owe its success to continuity. No one statistic will convince voters of Zimmerman's fielding expertise; defense is the lone domain in baseball that numbers cannot quite quantify. And no one highlight will certify his deservingness. Good fielding becomes great only when the highlights repeat -- when they repeat so often, no matter the situation or the stadium, that they no longer become highlights.

By now, the full cache of Zimmerman highlights shows everything, again and again: He glides left, snaring balls that any other third baseman would yield to the shortstop. He gloves a one-bounce short-hop, defusing a hit into an easy out in a half-second. He charges a dribbler down the line, bare-handing and throwing all in the same motion. When he robbed Colorado's Brad Hawpe in this manner on Aug. 18, MASN's Bob Carpenter gushed on air that Zimmerman made the play look "ridiculously easy." When he did the same thing the following night, denying a base hit on a bunt attempt by Dexter Fowler, Carpenter said, "Look at that play! He made it look simple when it was in fact very complicated."

Zimmerman, now in his fourth full season, has never won a Gold Glove award. In part because the defensive world remains ungoverned by easy-to-articulate statistics -- and worse, because its most common statistics (errors, for instance) often mislead -- the Gold Glove award sometimes becomes a popularity contest. Media market size matters. So do offensive statistics and reputation. David Wright won the National League award for third basemen in 2007 and 2008. Scott Rolen won it before that. Since 1995, only five National League third basemen have won it.

But this year, according to National League scouts who've observed Zimmerman, and according to teammates who've benefited from him, the 24-year-old deserves the award.

"I played with [three-time winner] Ken Caminiti, and he got to everything," relief pitcher Ron Villone said. "But [Caminiti] still doesn't have the range of Ryan. He had a great arm, but at the prime of his career, he didn't get to as many balls. I watched Alex Rodriguez, who works as hard as any player does -- I don't think Alex gets to the balls that Ryan does. Just watching him day in and day out, with as much as he works at the position, I don't want to put anybody else above him right now."

Interim manager Jim Riggleman said only one other third baseman he's seen, two-time AL Gold Glove winner Adrián Beltre, compares to Zimmerman. Infield coach Pat Listach, asked if he's observed another third baseman get to more balls, said quickly, "No. No way."

Zimmerman's case this year will depend on how voters -- managers and coaches in each league -- balance the first-hand evidence with old statistics (like errors) and new age statistics (such as Ultimate Zone Rating). Anybody who watches ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" has seen Zimmerman plenty. He has 13 "Web Gem" appearances this season, more than anybody else in baseball. But he has also made 15 errors, third most among National League third baseman. That total is the result, mostly, of some midseason difficulties throwing to first base.

Several numbers, though, work in Zimmerman's favor. He has the most total chances (404) of any third baseman, a sign of his range. (San Diego's Kevin Kouzmanoff, another Gold Glove contender, has just 298 chances.) Among third basemen, Zimmerman also has the best Ultimate Zone Rating (+15.9), a statistic that quantifies defensive abilities by runs saved or lost, compared with an average replacement. Wright, by the way, is a -6.6.

Zimmerman, for one, admits he wants the award. Badly. "Playing defense, I take a lot of pride in it," he said. "It would be a huge individual accomplishment."

Still, Zimmerman acknowledges his one flaw -- throwing. Earlier this year, he often pegged across-the-diamond throws into the ground. Since the all-star break, by taking extra throwing work before games, he's corrected the problem, committing only two errors in the last 46 games.

"I still went through that kind of spell where I made errors throwing, and the ultimate goal is to go through a year without that," Zimmerman said. "I still haven't done that, but I've recovered nicely from that and done a lot better in the second half. Hopefully I can carry that on for the rest of this year and into next year."

Since the day he was drafted, when then-general manager Jim Bowden compared him with Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, Zimmerman has won effusive praise for his glove, his reflexes and his soft hands. Third base is the one position where all of those characteristics are essential.

"It's a do-or-die position," Zimmerman said.

"Those do-or-die plays, he makes them look routine," Listach said.

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