If there was an embodiment of last season for the Washington Nationals, it may have been Ryan Zimmerman. The veteran moved to a new position, first base. He was hurt, returned, excelled, then was hurt again. He was frustrated at season’s end.
His position change began in spring training. After playing 1,133 games at third base over 10 seasons, Zimmerman was moving across the infield full-time. He worked in Viera, Florida, on his footwork around first. In particular, Zimmerman practiced the reverse pivot to throw to second when fielding a grounder and trying to throw out the lead runner, if not start a double play. It looked like a transition Zimmerman would make with relative ease.
At season’s end, his UZR (ultimate zone rating), a fielding assessment that can fluctuate, was -2.2. His fielding percentage was .995. Those numbers hint that Zimmerman was solid in his first season at first base, if not working with expansive range. That makes sense considering he was playing with a foot injury.
“I felt really comfortable there,” Zimmerman said. “As the season went on, I started to kind of know where I’m supposed to be and get a little bit more comfortable as far as playing away from the base and all that with the new shifts and everything like that. Would it have been nice to have 50 or 60 more games over there? Yeah, of course. I think I played enough over there and got comfortable enough that I have confidence that if I continue to work, I think I can become a pretty good first baseman.”
Plantar fasciitis nagged him early in the season. Eventually, he went on the disabled list June 11. His offensive numbers at the time were among the league’s poorest: a .209 batting average with a .265 on-base percentage and a .346 slugging percentage through 56 games. His .611 OPS was the lowest among qualified first baseman.
“We tried as much as we could to play with the foot for as long as we could, but it just got to the point where I don’t think I was really helping the team win,” Zimmerman said. “That’s what everyone wants to do, and if you’re not doing that, it’s kind of pointless.”
So, he stepped away in the middle of the summer. From June 10 to July 27, Zimmerman did not play a game in the majors. The day he returned, he went 2-for-3. That was the start of a torrid run for Zimmerman. He hit seven home runs in August, including four in a seven-day span. September started even better. Zimmerman hit .462 with a 1.367 OPS. Hitting behind Bryce Harper provided Zimmerman numerous chances to hit with a runner on base, and be the person pitchers decided to throw to, since they feared more significant damage from Harper.
“I actually thought when I came back from the foot, I was playing probably the best baseball I’ve played since ‘08 or ‘09, before the shoulder and all that stuff,” Zimmerman said. “I felt great, and then obviously the little oblique thing that just wouldn’t go away.”
That “little oblique thing” led to Zimmerman’s final plate appearance on Sept. 7. He had raised his batting average 40 points in just more than a month before being shut down for the season. He watched from the bench as the team imploded.
Resting since the end of the season has fixed his ailments. Zimmerman said he can swing a bat and do any baseball activity now.
“That was encouraging to come back and play the way I played,” Zimmerman said. “Give me some confidence now to roll that over into this season and do the little things I was doing to get to where I was, hopefully have a whole season of that.
“My job is to drive in runs. Whether I hit .240 or .340, my job is to drive in runs, that’s what I’m really supposed to do. Last year, I thought I did a really good job of that. I just need to stay on the field.”
Scherzer searching for home run cure
Max Scherzer did not go into the offseason patting himself on the back for throwing two no-hitters in his first year with the Nationals. Instead, he was anxious to figure out why he allowed so many home runs. He gave up 17 home runs after the all-star break and 27 for the season. In 2011, when with the Detroit Tigers and having his poorest major-league season, Scherzer allowed 29 home runs. He began looking into causes in October.
“I’ve really thought long and hard about why, really in that second half, different reasons why I was able to give up so many home runs,” Scherzer said. “I don’t want to sit here and tell you those answers. … It’s all in theory. I’ve actually got to go out there and do it to see if I am right or wrong. It is something I took seriously and really thought about different things I can do differently. How I can pitch differently against the same hitters and things I really need to work on.”
Coaching staff finalized
The Nationals announced Dusty Baker’s coaching staff on Tuesday. It includes a couple holdovers, and some new faces. The bench coach is Chris Speier, pitching coach Mike Maddux, hitting coach Rick Schu, first base coach Davey Lopes, third base coach Bobby Henley, assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones, and bullpen coach Dan Firova.