Ryan Zimmerman: National League Ranking


Throughout the month, we will be ranking each Nationals starter and a couple of bench players to see where they rank at their positions in the National League. Earlier this week, we ranked Danny Espinosa. Today we will be continuing our series with 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 which parts of the team need to be fixed and which are solid compared to the rest of the league. The first step for the Nationals 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.

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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. This gives us a baseline to start the analysis.

It’s worth taking a moment to note that I’ll be using first basemen for this comparison. While first base hasn’t been Zimmerman’s primary spot in the past, the dismissal of Adam LaRoche makes it blatantly obvious that this will be Zimmerman’s new home moving forward. Offensively, this isn’t really a problem, but it will make defensive comparison a bit more difficult. Of course, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Over the last two seasons, the top five National League first basemen by WAR according to FanGraphs are Paul Goldschmidt (10.8), Freddie Freeman (8.9), Anthony Rizzo (7.3), Joey Votto (7.2), and Adrian Gonzalez (6.2). Ryan Zimmerman’s WAR over the same time frame was 4.1, good enough for 7th best among first basemen.

Obviously, the name that stands out on the list is Freeman, who plays for the Nationals’ biggest regular season nemesis, Atlanta. He’s one of the best first basemen in the league, and he’s also a consistent force in the lineup, hardly missing any time. Of all the qualifying players analyzed, Freeman had the most plate appearances (1,337) over the last two seasons. Rizzo and Gonzalez were the only other two to break 1,300.

As far as the Nats are concerned, though, what do we make of Zimmerman’s place in the pecking order? It’s certainly a plus that he isn’t at the bottom of the league, but he’s still got a ways to go before he’s really considered as an elite first baseman.

We can get a better look at how Zimmerman stacks up against others at this position by breaking the numbers down a little further. For starters, let’s look at Ryan’s offense, which, given his arthritic shoulder problems, is probably what most Nats fans would say he does best.

Zimmerman’s wOBA (a stat that combines all the different aspects of hitting and weighs each of them in proportion to their actual run value) over the past two seasons has been .351. In a vacuum, that seems pretty solid. After all, it’s good enough for 3rd best on the team, behind only Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper.

In terms of the National League’s first basemen, though, a .351 wOBA is only good enough for 9th in the league. To be fair, Zimmerman falls in with a group of players clustered around the .350 mark, but he still can’t qualify as elite. Zimmerman also ranks 9th in home runs (decent given the number of game’s he’s missed), and 10th in both OPS and RBI. So, unfortunately, what Zimmerman does best doesn’t necessarily stack up immensely well against the elite players at his (new) position.

That being said, Zimmerman has dealt with more than his fair share of injuries. Perhaps if he stays healthy, he’ll be able to put together a solid season that will put him in the top tier of first basemen.

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Now we also have to look at the defensive side of things, and, as I mentioned before, this is where things get a little tricky. Zimmerman, originally a third baseman, has moved all around the field, logging time at left field as well as first base over the past two seasons. So how, exactly, should we try to compare him with players who have spent the past two full seasons playing first?

We could look at Zimmerman’s first base stats, which show a UZR/150 (which takes a player’s Ultimate Zone Rating and standardizes it to 150 games) of an abysmal -109.1. Of course, Zimmerman has played a whopping 18 innings at first base, all in 2014. Given that we’re looking at other players over the past two seasons, though, it seems a little unfair to use such a small sample size.

We could also just take Zimmerman’s overall defensive score for the past two years. After all, this is what we did for WAR, and, to be honest, it’s the only real way to get a proper comparison. For 2013-14, Zimmerman posted a cumulative defensive score of -13.4.

That sounds terrible, right? It isn’t completely unexpected, though. There are enough articles on Zimmerman’s arthritic shoulder and defensive woes to fill an encyclopedia. At one point, the Nats were even forced to push him out to left field just to minimize the potential harm he did the team.

Given all of that, I have a little bit of good news: Zimmerman’s scores actually aren’t that bad comparatively. Of the five first basemen with the top WAR (Goldschmidt, Freeman, Rizzo, Votto, Gonzalez), every single one of them has a negative defensive score, and three of them have lower scores than Zimmerman: Goldschmidt (-14.4); Freeman (-20.1); and Votto (-13.8). Even Adam LaRoche, who, in my opinion, is an excellent defensive first baseman, posted a -28.8 defensive score. In other words, the WAR leaders at first base derive a lot more of their value from offense rather than defense.

This plays right into the Nationals hands with moving Zimmerman to first. They will be able to minimize the defensive liability of Zim’s arm while putting him in a position that is less physically demanding, giving him the opportunity to stay healthy for more of the season.

It remains yet to be seen whether or not Zimmerman will manage to be a serviceable replacement for LaRoche. The Nationals certainly will miss the bearded wonder. But given the defensive woes of even the top players at that position, it’s fair to expect Zimmerman, if he can finally manage to stay healthy, to start to move toward the top of the pack at first base in 2015.