The Nats, having clinched the NL East and now playing for the best record in the NL, are in an interesting situation. They want to rest their players and still win games. While they won’t be rolling out the Syracuse Chiefs lineup they did on Sept 17 to play the Braves, it is expected that most or all of the starters will get their days off here and there.
One thing that should improve this rest-but-win situation is the reintroduction of Ryan Zimmerman to the lineup. The timing of his return, should it happen as planned (as early as Saturday), works out well, in terms of being non-controversial. He will get to play for guys who were likely going to get to sit anyway.
The controversy begins once the playoffs start. Does he have a role as a glorified pinch hitter? Maybe if they face a tough lefty like Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner, he’ll start at first over Adam LaRoche, but that’s it? I don’t think so. I think they have to start him throughout the playoffs, assuming he’s hitting.
The Case for Zim
When he’s hot, Ryan Zimmerman is the best hitter on this team. Better than the other hitters when they’re hot. He’s not going to play for one of the outfielders, and other than against those tough lefties, he aint replacing LaRoche, either. He’d have to play third, shifting Rendon to 2B and, most likely, replacing Asdrubal Cabrera in the lineup.
Cabrera was a very good pickup for the Nats. And he’s done a good job for them. But he’s hitting .225/.315/.403 with the Nats. He has had some real clutch hits, and he has certainly had some hot streaks that look better than that line indicates. But it aint a Ryan Zimmerman hot streak. Speaking of Ryan’s hot streaks, I’d like to unfairly bring up a small sample size moment in his career
In all seriousness, yes, that suffers from all the caveats of small sample sizes and the reality of clutch hitting and improved performance “when it really counts.” That being said, my two points to refute that are THREE EIGHT ONE and SEVEN FOURTEEN. Cabrera is not doing that over a 5 game stretch.
The Nats should be willing to deal with his poor throwing at third base if they could get those numbers. This is a strong defense, with stellar pitching, and even at his worst he isn’t flubbing every throw. There may be some bad moments, there will certainly be some hold-your-breath moments, but my bet is that those will come more from him hitting it over the fence than lobbing a throw to first. The .987 July OPS this year tells you all you need to know about how much he can contribute.
There is obviously no guarantee Zim will hit that well, either. But if he gets hot, he is going to be the best hitter in the lineup, and they’ve got to use him. And despite being out for months, he has shown in the past he can come back from injury and hit.
Many Happy Returns
Let’s take a look at how he’s hit after returning from the DL. But I’m not going to just look at the games immediately after returning. Rather, he has about 10 games, give or take, to warm up in the majors before the playoffs starts. So let’s also look at his 10 games back AFTER a 10 game warmup. In other words, games 11-20 after returning, which should be analogous with the first two rounds of the playoffs (obviously those rounds could be anything from 7 to 12 games).
Here’s what he did after the listed DL assignment, both in the first 10 games back, which will be like the wrap up of the season here, and the next 10 back, similar timing to when the playoffs start.
A mix of good and bad for sure, but more good than bad. What’s interesting to me, though, isn’t the numbers of good and numbers of bad. Instead, it’s that he’s shown how he’s gonna do when he returns, for at least the short term, immediately when he comes back. Only in that 2012 return did he go from good to bad (or vice versa), and even in that one his early OBP was so good you’d take it. The other observation is that the three good “next 10” runs are much better than what we’d ever get from Cabrera.
In other words, Zim will probably show us whether he should be in the playoffs by the way he performs down the stretch. If he is hitting, or at least getting on base at a good clip, they need to start him.
Maybe Bryce Harper put it best
Bryce Harper called Ryan Zimmerman "our leader, our captain, the franchise player … having (him) back in our lineup is going to be huge."
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) September 17, 2014
The Nats have a week or so to determine if he is healthy and is hitting. If the answer to both of those is yes, this team is better when he’s starting, and they have to find a way to let him do just that.