Sep 12, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (11) hits a home run against the New York Mets during the first inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Zimmerman: National League Ranking


Throughout the month, we will be ranking each Nationals starter and a couple of bench players and see where they rank among the National League, and then among the entirety of Major League Baseball. Yesterday we started off our series by ranking Gio Gonzalez. Today we will be continuing with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

In these rankings we will be using statistics from the last two seasons to give us a bigger sample size, to see just how good Nationals players are. In this effort, we will see what part of the team needs to be fixed and which is solid compared to the rest of the league. The main goal is to win the division, so if any National League East player comes across in our findings, we will be sure to point it out. If not, the main goal is winning the National League Pennant and going to the World Series.

I will analyze standard offensive and defensive statistics, as well as advanced statistics. This will give us a full picture of who the best players are at that position.  To put the players in some type of order, we will be using WAR. That gives us a baseline to start the analysis.

The top five third basemen according to FanGraphs by WAR are David Wright, Chase Headley, Matt Carpenter, Martin Prado and Ryan Zimmerman. The name at the top of the list is very familiar to Nationals fans, as Wright is notorious for torturing the Nationals each and every time he faces them. It’s interesting to compare Zimmerman and Wright because both players have developed very similarly, although Wright is a few years older.

Zimmerman and Wright have known each other since they played on travel teams when they were kids in Norfolk, Va., and they’re both considered to be among the best third basemen in the game. Given how closely related they’ve been on their path to the big leagues, it’s understandable that fans and analysts alike compare these two players every time they face each other. However, to get the most accurate comparison between Zimmerman, Wright and the other third basemen that make up the top five, it’s imperative to use all kinds of statistics, which is what we will be doing today.

Although Zimmerman has never really been considered a ‘power hitter’, his numbers suggest that he has some of the best pop at his position in the National League. Over the past two seasons, Zimmerman is second in home runs with 51, trailing only Pedro Alvarez of the Pirates, who has 66. Not only does Zimmerman hit the ball over the fence, but he is also second in RBIs with 174, behind only Alvarez.

Clearly, Alvarez dominates third basemen when it comes to power and driving in runs, but does that make him better than the others? No. There’s a reason why Alvarez isn’t among the top five third basemen in the National League. Part of the problem might be that he’s struck out 117 times more than Zimmerman has over the last two years. This is why it is important to go beyond the standard statistics of home runs and RBIs. There’s nothing wrong with standard statistics, but to get the full picture it’s essential to use advanced statistics such as OPS, wOBA and BABIP for offense, and UZR/150 for defense.

OPS is an excellent offensive evaluation statistic as it takes into account the key aspects of hitting:  contact, patience and power. In today’s game, power isn’t everything– which is why Alvarez is nowhere near the top three in OPS. Zimmerman has an OPS of .817, good for third among qualifying National League third basemen. Zimmerman trails only Carpenter (.858) and Wright (.892). A high OPS is a good thing for Zimmerman as it shows not only that he hits home runs, but also that the at bats in which the ball doesn’t leave the yard are productive as well.

Sep 17, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (11) rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run during the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. The Nationals won 4 – 0. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

While OPS is a great statistic for analyzing offense, wOBA is even better. Designed under the concept that ‘not all hits are created equally’, wOBA or Weighted On-Base Average combines all the different aspects of hitting and weighs each of them in proportion to their actual run value. Zimmerman doesn’t rank quite as high in wOBA, coming in at fourth among qualifying National League third basemen with .353. Wright leads this category as well, with a wOBA of .382. Although Zimmerman lags a bit in wOBA, it’s partly because those in front of him have extremely good wOBAs. FanGraphs considers Wright’s wOBA to be near ‘excellent’, and Carpenter’s, which comes in second at .373, is considered to be ‘great’. While Zimmerman’s is not as stellar as the others, his wOBA is still very much above average and is a good indication of how solid he is as a hitter. wOBA is my favorite statistic for analyzing offense because it’s the only true ‘tell all’ metric that calculates every aspect of hitting. Read more about wOBA here.

Another statistic used to analyse offense is BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls In Play. BABIP is essentially a measure of luck, as it can be influenced by line drives being hit right at someone or by good defenders robbing a hit from the batter. While BABIP is not necessarily a measure of offensive success, it tends to reveal hitting trends for certain players. For example, Zimmerman has a BABIP of .314 which comes in at seventh in the National League. His poor BABIP is probably caused, at least in part, by the fact that he doesn’t hit many line drives (19.9 percent, 11th among qualifying National League third basemen). While this isn’t a major issue, it outlines a trend that could cause Zimmerman’s production to drop over time as his power diminishes.

Despite his low BABIP, Zimmerman’s OPS and wOBA, the only statistics that really matter when it comes to offense, place him among the best third basemen in the league. However, third base is a position in which fielding is just as important as hitting. And even though Zimmerman is very solid offensively, defense is a different story.

UZR/150 or Ultimate Zone Rating (scaled to 150 games) is a great metric for comparing players based on defense, as it calculates the number of runs a fielder saves (or gives up) in range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined. At this point, Zimmerman’s defense is undoubtedly the most glaring weakness in his game. Zimmerman has a UZR/150 of -7.8, which puts him in ninth place among qualifying third basemen. To put this into perspective, Zimmerman’s UZR/150 is substantially worse than that of Giants’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, whose size reduces his range significantly.

Zimmerman’s defensive woes were due in large part to throwing issues caused by a shoulder injury, but his low UZR/150 outlines a more significant issue: he’s lost range. When he won the Gold Glove Award in 2009, Zimmerman had a UZR/150 of 12.2. A drop that drastic over four years doesn’t happen simply because he’s committing more errors. This is part of the reason why he may very well be moving across the diamond to first base very soon– a move that would, in my opinion, end up benefiting him in the long run. That being said, Zimmerman played very well at third base during the second half of 2013, and his throwing issues appear to be behind him. But unless he shows that he still has the range to play third, a move to first may be the only logical solution for the former Gold Glover.

Despite Zimmerman’s poor defense of late, his offensive numbers put him right there with the best third basemen in the league. While he’s not number one right now–that label still belongs to David Wright– Zimmerman is still in his prime and his numbers could improve even more. That being said, injuries have been a big problem for Zimmerman over his nine-year career, and if he wants to help the Nationals on their path to the World Series in 2014, he’ll have to find a way to stay healthy.  But if he stays healthy and if he has in fact gotten over his throwing problems, there’s no telling what Ryan Zimmerman can accomplish in 2014.

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  • NatsMan

    Very nice article. Thanks for all the advanced stats. Just one comment: I think Zimmerman’s reduced range IS directly attributable to his throwing problems. That is, because he was struggling with his shoulder injury and so, with making the throw to first, he started playing much shallower than he used to, thus drastically reducing his range. Hopefully, now with the shoulder problems behind him we’ll see him playing deeper at third and getting to a lot more balls.

    • Pablo Roa

      Thanks! And that’s a very good point. I think the best approach for Zimmerman’s defense this year is cautious optimism. Keep in mind that most of us thought his shoulder was heeled prior to the 2013 season. Davey even went on the record saying that “because his shoulder’s better, he plays deeper.” Clearly, that wasn’t the case. It’ll be interesting to see how he does now that he’s almost a year and a half removed from the surgery. (If you want to check out that article from last April, you can find it at http://goo.gl/yUU4ZD)

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