Who’s on First?

Is Ryan Zimmerman slowly transitioning to first base?

Is Ryan Zimmerman slowly transitioning to first base?

In the 2011 movie Moneyball, A’s GM Billy Beane and third-base Ron Washington (played by Brad Pitt and Brent Jennings, respectively) sit in Scott Hatteberg’s (Chris Pratt) living room, attempting to convince him to join the team. They want Hatteberg at first base, but Hatteberg has never played the position before:

Hatteberg: I’ve only ever played catcher.

Beane: It’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash.

Washington: It’s incredibly hard.

Fast-forward to 2013. Ryan Zimmerman, franchise third baseman bedrock of the Nationals organization, struggled mightily at the hot corner in the first half. Coming offseason arm surgery, Zimmerman never seemed comfortable throwing the ball, and it showed; through August 7, he had made a league-high 14 throwing errors. Worse yet, his lack of confidence in his arm forced him to play far shallower than the average third baseman, robbing him of a great deal of his range, which for many years was among the league’s best. According to UZR, he was the worst third baseman in the major leagues. For the first time, there seemed a real chance that Zimmerman would not be able to stay at the position he had played his entire MLB career.

But in the last two months of the season, Zimmerman seemed to turn a corner. 9 months removed from the surgical procedure, Zimmerman’s arm strength seemed to finally return. The throwing errors stopped — after August 7th, he only made one more all season. With the trust in his arm came better range — he was finally able to take a few steps back and play deep, not having to worry if he had the arm strength to make the long throw. In the second half, Zimmerman made several highlight-reel plays, like the one below (link here):

5ddwlWith those two strong months, Zimmerman allayed many of the doubts about his position as the Nationals’ third baseman in 2014. Which is why it came as a mild surprise today, when we found out today that Zimmerman wouldn’t be playing there exclusively next year. As Adam Kilgore reported, Zimmerman would see some time at first base — according to Zimmerman himself, 10 to 15 games. When manager Matt Williams told Zimmerman of the plan, there was an exchange that seemed almost ripped from Aaron Sorkin’s script. From Kilgore’s article:

As each shared their view on the team and Zimmerman’s role, Williams posed a question to the Nationals’ franchise player: “Do you own a first baseman’s mitt?”

“I’ll get one,” Zimmerman said.

Later on in the aritcle, Zimmerman said this:

Still, Zimmerman views learning first base as a significant challenge. He readily admits he has no earthly idea how to play first base. He has appeared in 1,110 major league games in the field: one at shortstop, 1,109 at third base.

“I don’t even know which foot stretch at first base,” Zimmerman said.

First base is hard. It’s incredibly hard.

There are several obvious advantages for the Nationals if Zimmerman can play a little first in 2014. First, the team will have the ability to sit first baseman Adam LaRoche against tough lefties — he had a .566 OPS against all southpaws last year — by moving Zimmerman to first and having Anthony Rendon shift to his natural position of third. Second, Zimmerman’s added versatility as a corner infielder could save the Nationals from having to waste a bench spot on a player like Jeff Baker, who hits lefties very well (career .875 OPS against LHP), but cannot play adequate defense anywhere but first base.

But what worries me most about this move is not its’ implications for the present. Zimmerman is a very athletic player, and despite his lack of experience, I have little doubt that he will be able to make the transition to first. I’m worried more about what the move says about how the organization sees Zimmerman’s future. Again, from the Kilgore article:

Zimmerman’s foray at first base could help ease a transition later in his career. LaRoche’s contract will expire after 2014, and the Nationals may move Zimmerman to first and put current second baseman Anthony Rendon at third base, the position Rendon played in college and the minor leagues.

Most around baseball have seen Zimmerman’s eventual move to first base as an inevitability. But this move suggests that Zimmerman’s days at third could be numbered — a fact that poses problems for his status as an elite player. Last year, Zimmerman posted a 123 wRC+ that ranked 6th among all qualifying major league third basemen. But among first baseman, a 123 wRC+ would rank only 13th; at first, Zimmerman’s bat would be merely average, severely limiting his value. Zimmerman would go from an above-average player at a position of scarcity to an average one at a position of abundance — hardly a player worth the $100 million extension he received in February 2012.

And maybe that’s what so incredibly hard about first base; not playing the position, but providing value to your team while playing it.

If Zimmerman becomes more liability than asset at third, it may necessitate a position change. But it is in both Zimmerman’s interest and the Nationals’ to give him every opportunity to prove he can still man the hot corner.

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