There have been many impressive offensive feats performed in the last few weeks by the Washington Nationals in the midst of their hot streak, which now has them four and a half game out of the last Wild Card spot, currently held by the Cincinnati Reds. Arguably the most impressive of said feats is the 24 (and counting) game hit streak by center fielder Denard Span, which is good for fourth in Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos history, right behind just-retired Vladimir Guerrero and current teammate Ryan Zimmerman, and has propelled the Nats to a 19-7 record during the streak. Here’s how Span’s streak looks:
Not too shabby, eh? Now, let’s take a walk down (recent) memory lane and take a look at how Span’s production — batting average (BA) and on base plus slugging percentage (OPS) — during his hit streak compares to similar Nats (as in Washington, not Montreal – sorry Canada!) hitting streaks. Moving forward, I am only considering hit streaks of 15 games or more, courtesy of Adam LaRoche, Cristian Guzman, Span, Ian Desmond, HDIB? great Nick Johnson, and Zimmerman:
Not surprisingly, Span’s batting average is reasonably high, with his OPS reasonably low compared to his fellow Nats streakers, which makes sense, given Span’s lack of power and so-so (for a top of the order hitter) on base percentage. Fair enough.
I seem to recall an 18 game hitting streak in there somewhere, in the annals of Washingreal history.
Ahh, yes, F.P. Santangelo told me
many many times over the course of Span’s hitting streak once he had an 18-game hitting streak.
Ribbing aside, let’s take a look at Nats 15+ game hitting streaks — along with Santangelo’s 18-gamer — again by batting average and OPS:
OK, cool — we see some interesting trends here, namely, these guys are going out of their minds not only with their batting averages, but their overall power. Now, let’s break down OPS into its constituent parts — on base percentage (OBP) and slugging percentage (SLG) and add that to AVG and OPS and then look at these streaks in comparison to each player’s career averages for these four stats, yes?
With this, we see that while Santangelo’s hitting streak was impressive, it is definitely the outlier in comparison to the other streaks; his streak production was in such great contrast to what he normally accomplished hitting-wise, even when compared to his fellow streakers. Conversely, Span’s hitting streak, as well as Johnson’s, more closely trend with their career averages.
What does this mean? Probably nothing; while it would be easy to say that the differences between streak averages and career average is some reflection of each player’s inherent hitting talent, that is a bit of a slippery slope and something that the data as presented can’t really speak to. Variables such as opponent defense and even pitching match ups all cloud the data enough to not warrant too many brash statements made about the data here. What is interesting are Zimmerman’s streaks and how he went about each — while some were driven more by his ability to make contact and not much else, others were marked by his ability to generate runs with his swings.
Taking one more step back historically, how does the Washingreal data compare to other teams?
Let me tell you, with the help of Baseball Reference’s Play Index. Looking at the modern era — 1916 to current day — I provide below the number of 15 game or more hitting streaks for each organization. I then averaged them over the years of interest to give an idea how frequently over the franchise’s modern era a big hitting streak occurs:
|Team||Yrs||15+ H Streaks||Strk/Yr|
Not that Span’s streak wasn’t impressive enough, but the data provided, especially the table above, confirms how special the streak is to the organization; these kinds of streaks, while seen more frequently in the last few years, thanks to Zimmerman, haven’t been a hallmark of Washingreal hitters, to say the least. Between that and the context of Span’s streak — in the middle of a wild card run in the waning days of the season — only adds to the enjoyment of the streak and its importance to the success of the Nats’ 2013 season.
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:
|L||2||2||throw, force out attempt|
|2 – 7||11||10||*All runs on throwing errors|
|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|
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|
*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.