Recently, Ryan Zimmerman has had a few problems throwing the baseball. It isn’t exactly a major MLB storyline as of yet, but there is certainly chatter in DC, as he’s made 4 throwing errors compared with 34 assists. ZimmermanthrowIt’s not like he hasn’t made good throws, it’s just really noticeable because

  1. Four errors in 15 games puts him on a ridiculous pace of 43.2 errors for the year. The last person to commit 43 errors was Butch Hobson in 1978.
  2. Two or three of the errors led directly to runs scored, either the difference in a Nats loss or the beginning of a blowout in a Nats loss

What’s interesting is that Zim is actually not the team leader in errors – that belongs to Ian Desmond. But Desmond had 4 of those in a 4 game stretch, during the first week of the season. Since then he hasn’t looked too bad in the field, and the panic has subsided with Desi.

But the Zim panic abounds, because he had shoulder surgery this offseason, never has thrown the ball in a traditional fashion and has acknowledged the throwing issue is mental. All of this has led to the call for him to be moved to first base, bringing Anthony Rendon in to play third. This isn’t a new idea, as it was mentioned last year, and it isn’t happening tomorrow, because of the presence of Adam LaRoche. But it’s out there, and plenty of people think it is inevitable, eventually.

At least some people do. I believe the Nats should not WANT Zimmerman to move to first, and only put him there as an absolute last resort. Why? Well because even if he’s an All Star third baseman, and quite a few years of his career he’s been at that level (whether he was selected or not) he isn’t an All Star first baseman.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this:

After seeing that on Twitter the other day I thought, why not look at where Zim’s offensive production ranks over the last few years among third basemen and first basemen in the league. First, here’s how he stacks up, going back to 2009, among all MLB 3B with 400 PAs or more. (And if there are any you aren’t familiar with, check out the stats page)

Zim3branksThat aint too bad. Even in his worst years, he’s a top 10 guy. And at his best he’s arguably the best 3B in the league, possibly the #1 guy in the NL. His best was not only in 2010, by the way, he also produced spectacular numbers after his cortizone shot in 2012. So while he has to prove he can stay healthy, those 2010 rankings are certainly possible again. Now take a look at how those same numbers he had stack up among MLB first basemen:

Zim1branksThose aren’t the numbers of a perennial All Star. His 2010 season still looks pretty good, nothing wrong with being a top 10 1B, but it isn’t special among that group. But it’s a little unclear just how big these difference are by looking back and forth at the charts. So here is a chart with just the differences between his ranking as a third baseman and the league’s first basemen.

ZimdiffranksI hope that makes it pretty clear. Last year there wasn’t much of a difference – keeping in mind that there aren’t 30 players in the league who qualify to make this, he is average or just a little above average at either position. Every other year, he is a significantly worse 1B than 3B. Even in 2010, he goes from being one of the top 3 offensive players at his position to a guy that just top 10. Not bad, but not spectacular.

Why is this a big deal? You might think, if Rendon is gonna rake at third, you get a guy like Zim who can really pick it at first and hit well enough to hold up the position, there isn’t anything wrong with that, right? Well, sure, there isn’t anything wrong with that. But what you should be going for is the best player at each position.

I’ m reminded of the time that I lived in New York and read the amazing Steven Goldman write about the Yankees. He would lament their first base production, and reader would write in saying stuff like, well, with Jeter hitting like a HOFer at SS, it doesn’t really matter if the 1B can hit. The fallacy with that logic is that if you sacrifice one position because you’re superior in another, you’re basically negating your advantage of the superior position. In other words, if you play Tony Clark, Andy Phillips or Doug Meintkiewicz at first because Jeter is your SS, it  just gets you break even with the teams who have the more traditional good fielding/ok hitting SS and a bat at 1B. You have lost your advantage.

Don’t misinterpret – I’m not saying Ryan Zimmerman will hit like those guys. It’s just an extreme example of why this isn’t the best route for the Nats. Zim at first base isn’t a disaster, but its not ideal. Ideally he could continue to play third and they find a first baseman who can hit better than your average first baseman.

Ideally, they need to figure out how the heck to fix Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing issues. And if they can’t, they have to figure out how many throwing errors over the course of a season they can live with. Is it 10? 20? At what point do his errors outweigh his offensive production? That’s a discussion for another time, but I promise you it isn’t 4 or even 10.

By Charlie