From the Chicago Cubs’ viewpoint, the hole in the Washington Nationals’ lineup is a .303 hitter who slugged 36 homers, drove in 108 runs and made the all-star team. That’s the obvious weak spot. Don’t be surprised when the Cubs try to expose it.
Ryan Zimmerman doesn’t know it. I suggested, rather gingerly, that he, uh, hadn’t really hit very well against his opponent in the National League Division Series. I didn’t get into the details. They’re grisly enough that I’ll leave them for lower paragraphs, an attempt to hide them from the children.
“I had no clue,” Zimmerman said.
The Cubs, they will have a clue when Game 1 begins Friday night. And every single number skews to make Zimmerman the key to the series. He is going to get pitches to hit. He must hit them.
The Cubs bring to this series starting pitchers who own a Cy Young Award (Jake Arrieta) and a National League ERA crown (Kyle Hendricks), have won the MVP award in a league championship series (Jon Lester) and have combined to appear in seven All-Star Games. One of them, Hendricks, graduated from Dartmouth. Shoot, another, Lester, beat cancer.
And the Nationals absolutely mash against them.
“I don’t really know how I’ve done,” Zimmerman said.
Keep it that way, Ryan.
Zimmerman has overcome enough to get to this point — transforming from one of the worst offensive players in baseball in 2016 to a deserved all-star and major threat this season — that he can afford to dismiss past performance. He was hurt. Now he’s healthy.
He couldn’t stay on the field. And when he got out there, he wasn’t well enough to produce.
The Cubs don’t particularly care about this. Playoff series are fascinating beasts in part because of the matchups managers identify — before a pitch is thrown — that they would like to see. Without the password to the Cubs’ database (maybe the Cardinals have that?), this is a guess. But the guess is, in the Cubs’ pitchers’ meetings, the information is: Zimmerman can’t beat us.
How to splice this? Try the long view first. In his 13-year major league career, Zimmerman has at least 223 plate appearances against every National League team. His lowest on-base-plus slugging percentage against any one of those teams? The Cubs, at .730. That’s a 90-point drop from his career mark.
But, you say, at-bats from 2006 have no bearing on this series? Fine, fine. What matters is what Joe Maddon, the Cubs manager, has seen with his own eyes and what numbers the Cubs’ army of analytics specialists can come up with.
Well, those are easy to find, too. In 84 plate appearances — not a season but not a week, either — Zimmerman hit .144, got on base at a .167 clip and slugged .152 against the three Cubs teams Maddon has managed. That’s a .319 OPS. This year, National League pitchers posted a .322 OPS when they hit for themselves.
There’s only one conclusion: Maddon will go after him.
But maybe those numbers came against pitchers who won’t appear in this series? Well, no. Against current Cubs — 114 plate appearances — Zimmerman is a .240 hitter. He has never hit a home run against any member of the Chicago staff. Zero. Zilch.
“This is the time of the year for simplicity,” Maddon said. “You don’t need extra scouting reports. You don’t need to dig any deeper. That’s the trap.”
So we know: Maddon will look over the Washington lineup and steer his staff to the best possible matchup. Bryce Harper has an .896 OPS against current Cubs pitchers, and Maddon already has acknowledged the danger Harper presents by walking him 13 times in 19 plate appearances during one four-game series last year — walks that led to Zimmerman’s spot in the order. Daniel Murphy has a .927 OPS against current Cubs pitchers, and Maddon watched Murphy, then a Met, basically torch his team in the 2015 NLCS, going 9 for 17 with four homers in a New York sweep. Jayson Werth has a 1.138 OPS against this Cubs staff. Trea Turner is 5 for 11 with four walks.
Hey, Kyle Hendricks. You’re starting Game 1 for the Cubs. What jumps out to you about the Nats’ lineup?
“Just top to bottom, I think, the strength,” he said.
That’s code for: “I’m not telling you. But believe me, I know Ryan Zimmerman is 0 for 9 against me in his career.”
This is not meant for Nats fans — or even Zimmerman himself — to lament even before the series starts. This is, honestly, an opportunity. The Zimmerman who produced most of those numbers isn’t the Zimmerman who emerged this year. Yes, he went only 4 for 24 against the Cubs in 2017. But he is a streaky hitter — always has been — and so his résumé during this rebound season includes some oddities: 1 for 14 against Baltimore, 1 for 13 against Houston, etc.
What’s important for the Nationals: the Zimmerman who enters this postseason can’t be the Zimmerman on whom the Cubs feasted. The Nationals’ lineup is deep enough and balanced enough that he doesn’t have to be the .930 OPS guy he was over the course of this season. But he can’t be the .642 OPS guy he was a year ago — the kind of performance that had him doubting his body, which had him doubting his ability to perform.
“I’m not a very negative person,” Zimmerman said. “But when something like that happens for two or three years, it’s just human to have that [doubt] creep into your head. To say ‘never’ would be a lie.”
Zimmerman’s preparation for this series will be typical: look at recent video of each Cubs pitcher, watch his own at-bats and go. For the Cubs, Zimmerman is there to attack. For Zimmerman, the response is: Fine.
“Last year, everyone struggled against them,” Zimmerman said. “They all had crazy career years. Lester’s obviously, the postseason stuff, he’s been around for a long time and been really good. Arrieta’s been a very good pitcher the last three years. Hendricks had an unbelievable year last year. They’re good.”
Left unsaid, from Zimmerman: So am I. Doesn’t matter what the numbers say. Doesn’t matter what the Cubs think.
Chicago might dance around Harper and dodge Murphy. The Cubs might pitch carefully to Anthony Rendon or wonder about Werth. But they have to pitch to someone. That someone is almost certainly Zimmerman. The series is in his hands.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.