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Zimmerman Holds Edge in Rookie Race
Editor's Note: This is Tom Boswell's last e-mail column of the season.
On his 22nd birthday on Thursday, Nationals rookie Ryan Zimmerman gave himself a gift -- two base hits to raise his batting average to .289. But then Zimmerman has been giving himself special presents for the past 10 days, piling up the goodies that he wants most -- singles, doubles, home runs, defensive gems and especially a whole flock of RBI. The National League Rookie of the Year award is an almost unprecedentedly close battle this year and, after a one-game rest by Manager Frank Robinson on Sept. 18, Zimmerman has gone on a binge that should clinch the award for him, going 16-for-38 (.421) with six doubles, two homers, 12 RBI and what seems like a highlight film defensive stab every other night.
The Nats third baseman is going to need all of his late-season theatrics because, this year, the rookies in the NL are a gang of total freaks. For example, on Wednesday Zimmerman hit his 20th home run, beat out his 11th bunt hit of the year, drew three walks including one to drive in his 109th RBI and made a dazzling bare-handed play at third. This was hardly more than a normal night for this abnormal rookie. But his competition was not backing away.
That night in Florida, rookie shortstop Hanley Ramirez hit his 16th and 17th home runs, increasing his runs scored total to 117 as his three hits raised his average to .292. However, his night wasn't perfect. He was thrown out trying to steal his 52nd base. Immediately behind Ramirez in the Marlins' order was rookie second baseman Dan Uggla, who added 168th hit of the season to raise his average to .282 with 26 homers, 89 RBI and 104 runs scored.
That's how close the NL League Rookie of the Year race is right now. You look at every at-bat of every game to see if anyone is going on an amazing last-week tear to ice the award. Zimmerman, Ramirez and Uggla are having seasons that, in most years, would run away with the rookie honors. In my book, the proper order of finish is exactly that -- the brilliant-fielding Zimmerman slightly ahead of the hard-hitting but unspectacular double play combination of the Marlins. Somehow the national media has fallen in love with Uggla, 26, rather than Ramirez, 22, as the closest contender to Zimmerman. That's backward.
Ramirez has true monster numbers for a shortstop, the hardest position at which to get production like Ramirez's 73 extra base hits and 51 steals. Uggla has punch but he's in a stat war with Zimmerman that he can't possibly win. The Nat has far more RBI (109-89) and extra-base hits (70-59) as well as more hits (175-169), walks (60-46) and steals (11-6). Uggla has no reputation as a glove man while Zimmerman should be compared to perennial Gold Glove winner Scott Rolen.
This is an amazing season for NL rookies. Normally, the elegant towering Cole Hamels, 9-8 with 142 strikeouts in just 132 innings over 23 starts for the Phils, might be a candidate. This season, he's far behind another Marlins pitcher, Josh Johnson, who is 12-7 with a 3.10 ERA in 24 starts. The amazing Marlins actually have two more outstanding rookies, left fielder Josh Willingham with 25 homers and first baseman Mike Jacobs with 20 homers.
To reach a clear ROY decision, we need a process of elimination. Among pitchers, Johnson is the best. But a 12-7 record and only 157 innings, not enough yet to qualify in the final ERA standings, shouldn't allow him to compete equally with players like Zimmerman, Ramirez and Uggla who've barely missed a game and all have 600 or more at bats.
Put it this way, if Johnson ended his career with 15 seasons identical to this one, would he be in the Hall of Fame with 180 wins? No way. If Zimmerman and Ramirez ended with 15 such years -- and considering their youth one or both of them might actually do it -- they'd probably waltz into Cooperstown. Hypothetically, they'd both have more than 1,000 extra-base hits. Zimmerman would have 1,600 RBI while leadoff speedster Ramirez would have a similar number of runs scored and 800 steals.
Let's not get decades ahead of ourselves. These guys have to have 2,000 to 2,500 more games without serious injury, plus all the other factors that derail careers. It's painful to remember all the Ruben Sierras and Carlos Baergas who, even after five full years, looked like they couldn't avoid being statistical "immortals." The point is that Zimmerman and Ramirez, relative to the defensive positions they play, are having great years while Uggla is close behind. The current kid pitchers aren't close.
Two decisive elements separate Zimmerman from Ramirez -- defense and clutch hitting. Ramirez is a sometimes flashy but erratic fielder with improvisational techniques that have given him the third-highest errors total in the majors. Zimmerman is already the finished product, that rare third baseman with exceptional range who has also started twice as many double plays (30) as he's made errors (15). Many third basemen never achieve that ratio in a career.
Under pressure Zimmerman has shown brightest, leading the majors in hits with runners in scoring position (62). He's hit .361 with runners in scoring position since June 6 and has held down the No. 3 spot in the batting order since mid-season. He's had three walk-off hits and a walk-off walk. As for stamina, he'll end the year having played more game than any rookie third baseman since 1964. Also, only two other rookies in the last 50 years have had more than 100 RBI as rookies -- Albert Pujols and Mike Piazza. Just one rookie in history has ever had more than Zimmerman's 47 doubles. (But guess what, Ramirez has 46.) Zimmerman will probably win because he's been a face-of-the-franchise player for the last-place Nats while Ramirez has merely been one of five outstanding Florida rookies who have made the Marlins' $15-million payroll the talk of baseball. Uggla and Johnson may also take votes away from Ramirez.
But the proper line of reasoning is simpler than this. Uggla, Johnson and others have had fine seasons but none of them should be Rookie of the Year. Only Zimmerman and Ramirez deserve to make the final cut. Washington fans would like to think that Zimmerman's 109 RBI, his stellar defense, his stunning improvement as the season has progressed, his success as a No. 3 hitter and his record in pressure situations should easily separate him from Ramirez. However, it's not that easy. The Nats' third baseman and the Marlins' shortstop are close enough that if Ramirez somehow wins, it will definitely be wrong. But it won't quite be highway robbery.
-By Thomas Boswell
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