Missing the Mark – Ryan Zimmerman’s Defensive Woes

10 errors.

A 2-7 record in the games those errors occurred.

11 runs scored as a result of said errors.

No matter how hard you try to paint a rosy picture, full of hope and with an angle that speaks to an analytic stone yet to be unturned that provides an explanation for such a rough showing, sometimes the bare-faced truth is all you can, and should, provide.

Ryan Zimmerman has had better days defensively, manning third base. As the owner of the aforementioned numbers as well as a Gold Glove, much ado has been made of his miscues this season – all but one of them being of the throwing kind – and his seemingly sudden inability to make routine plays in a routine manner. While the fact that he was hobbled last year and earlier this season by throwing shoulder injuries that prompted surgery and some rehab time bought Zimmerman some sympathy votes as to the reason for his defensive follies, he finds himself still looking for the answer and arm slot that will cure his throwing ills.

While I will leave the more intangible and subjective aspects of what is ailing Zimmerman and his typically steady defense, whether they be injurious or mental in nature, for another discussion for another day, I do think that what we see on the surface may not tell the full story of Zimmerman and his defensive hiccups.

Let’s look at 2013 numbers again, this time adding another third baseman to the mix – Pittsburgh Pirate Pedro Alvarez. I mention Alvarez because he currently shares second place in errors committed in the MLB with San Francisco Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro, both with nine as of June 3rd. Let’s break down Alvarez’ errors just like we did for Zim:

Zimmerman W/L Runs Errors Error Type
L 2 2 throw, force out attempt
L 1 1 throw
L 2 1 throw
L 0 1 throw
L 4 1 throw
W 0 1 throw
W 1 1 throw
L 0 1 throw
L 1 1 throw
2 – 7 11 10 *All runs on throwing errors
W 2 1 groundball
L 0 1 groundball
L 0 1 groundball
L 0 1 groundball
W 0 1 line drive
L 0 1 groundball
W 0 1 throw
W 0 1 throw
W 0 1 groundball
5 – 4 2 9

Two things jump out at you when you digest this table – Zimmerman’s throwing woes are both pretty egregious and very costly. Even with the same amount of errors committed, it appears Alvarez’ miscues aren’t as costly as Zimmerman’s. Add in to this mix the number of runs the Nats and Pirates have allowed this season – 223 and 199, respectively, and the issues Zimmerman is having with his throws becomes even more magnified. The 11 runs Zim has given up due to his errors account for 5 percent of the runs given up by the Nats so far in 2013; Alvarez’ mistakes account for one percent of the 199 runs the Buccos have allowed. Quite a dramatic difference, in spite of the absolute number of errors not differing by much. While game situations dictate a large part of how costly an error can be – are there runners on base, how many out outs are there when the error is committed, for example – the reality that Zimmerman’s errors are so costly for a team that ranks 27th in the MLB in runs scored compounds the issues at hand.

Let’s move on and have a broader look at Zimmerman’s defense in comparison to some of his 2013 contemporaries, because, let’s face it, errors describe only a small fraction of a player’s overall fielding prowess. For this, I am going to use two defensive metrics that have fallen out of favour for the more robust and descriptive Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), but are still useful tools in describing a player’s defensive abilities – Revised Zone Rating (RZR) and Out of Zone Plays Made (OOZ). I use them here because they still paint an accurate picture of defensive ability and aren’t as sensitive to small sample sizes like UZR tends to be, all while being a little more palatable to the less sabermetrically inclined. For those link clicking averse, briefly, RZR is a way to measure a player’s range and his ability to make the routine plays expected from the position, while OOZ tallies the number of plays that were made and converted into outs on balls outside of the player’s expected zone. When you look at the two in unison, you can get a decent idea of how well a player fields his position as well as his range and his ability to make exceptional plays.

Good with that explanation? OK, now some numbers, courtesy of Fangraphs, looking at what 2013 has brought Zimmerman, Alvarez, as well as the American and National League leaders as far as RZR:

Name Team MLB Rank, RZR Inn Balls in Zone Plays RZR OOZ
Manny Machado BAL 1 509.2 119 98 0.824 21
Chase Headley SDP 2 388 96 79 0.823 9
Pedro Alvarez PIT 6 412 109 85 0.780 22
Ryan Zimmerman WSN 20 376.2 101 68 0.673 12

Out of 23 qualified third basemen, Ryan Zimmerman ranks 20th in the MLB in RZR, with only Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants ranking worse in the NL. Per Fangraphs, a rough estimate has Zimmerman’s RZR in the ‘awful’ category, which is anything under .700. That being said, no third baseman is considered ‘average’, with no one with a RZR at or better than .835, so as with many other statistical categorizations, caveat emptor. On a more positive (?) note, Zim is tied for 11th place with Evan Longoria, with 12 OOZ plays; Matt Dominguez of the Houston Astros leads all MLB third basemen with 25 OOZ plays, followed closely by Pedro Alvarez, with 22.

So what does this tell us?

So far in 2013, Zimmerman’s throwing problems have overshadowed an even larger issue – his apparent decline in defensive prowess. As judged by RZR and OOZ, Zim doesn’t seem to be making the plays that upper echelon defensive third basemen make or the routine ones that all third basemen are expected to make. If we go by just the table above, it appears that Zimmerman may have lost a step, which is hindering his typically elite defensive range.

Let’s not just go by this table – let’s grab some career stats for Zimmerman, and see if this apparent defensive decline is real or just a product of a poor signal to noise ratio. Again, we’ll look at RZR and OOZ, but this time, let’s take a peek at his UZR, now that we have enough of a sample size to look at those values appreciably and confidently. I have included my own innings per error calculation, labeled INN/E; I am also taking the liberty of throwing out his 2005 numbers to keep the data and results as clean as possible, as he only played 15 games that season, one of which was at shortstop.

Season Inn Balls in Zone Plays RZR OOZ UZR INN/E
2006 1368.33 271 190 0.701 56 3.8 91.2
2007 1431.67 342 245 0.716 71 16 62.2
2008 910.67 198 141 0.712 42 2.6 91.1
2009 1337.67 281 204 0.726 102 11.9 78.7
2010 1189.33 234 173 0.739 57 13.9 70.0
2011 866.67 232 157 0.677 23 -2.4 72.2
2012 1280.33 314 217 0.691 45 -0.9 67.4
2013 376.67 101 68 0.673 12 -8.7 41.0
Total 8872.33 1996 1410 0.706 415 36.9 71.8

*italics denote Gold Glove Award winning season

Here, we have a better gauge of how special Zimmerman has been defensively over the years, in particular his 2009 season, where he accrued 102 OOZ plays, which ranks as 1st all-time for third basemen, as well as his 2010 campaign. However, we also see a slow decline in defensive prowess, starting in 2011. Not only do we see a precipitous drop in UZR, going into negative territory, we also see his RZR and OOZ values steadily dropping as well, culminating in the clunker of a season we see him having in 2013. Another red flag we see in 2013 is the enormous jump in error frequency – currently making one every 41 innings played, about a 30 inning shift for the worse as compared to his career average.

No matter how you look at the numbers, the verdict is the same – Ryan Zimmerman’s once superb defensive prowess appears to be failing him. Whether it’s injuries, age, or some other cause, the last three years have shown a gradual progression towards mediocrity and worse at the hot corner defensively for Zim. With the Nationals currently auditioning prospect and career third baseman Anthony Rendon at second base at Class AAA Syracuse in an effort to shore up poor play from Danny Espinosa, it appears that Zimmerman is here to stay, warts and all. While Espinosa’s offense has been atrocious in 2013, he remains an elite defensive second baseman, ranking second in the MLB with a .888 RZR, making the shift of Rendon, a career third baseman, a tenuous one, and one that smacks of desperation from the Nats.

Another stone unturned, another reality better left unspoken.



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