There were two moments that sold me on Ryan Zimmerman. I was impressed by him when his first MLB homerun came off of Billy Wagner in the top of the ninth in New York with the Nats trailing 4-3. That didn’t sell me on Zimmerman, though it did foreshadow some of what was to come. The moment when I was sold on Zimmerman as a defensive player came on April 21 of that year. With Brian McCann on second, Pete Orr hit a flare into shallow left field. It was too close to the infield for Soriano to have a play and it appeared to be falling too fast for Zimmerman to make a play, but he did. He dove headlong, caught the ball, and drew the fist pump and point from pitcher, John Patterson. It was, and still is, one of the most amazing defensive plays I have ever seen. What made it even better is how Zimmerman slid on the wet grass with streams of water trailing him and his glove hand outstretched displaying the ball. In my mind that is still Zimmerman’s best defensive play, and he has made a lot of spectacular ones.
The next moment should be obvious to everyone. It is Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off homerun against the Yankees on Father’s Day, 2006. I had season tickets that season, but my father didn’t. He decided he wanted to go to the game fairly close to the last minute, and there were single seats still available. My father was nowhere near me, but we were both at the same baseball game. The game itself was a good affair with Michael O’Connor limiting the Yankees to just two runs, but Wang held the Nationals to one and looked to be going for a complete game. With Marlon Anderson having reached base ahead of him and one out having been recorded Zimmerman wasn’t the Nats final hope, but pretty close to it. Now every Nats fan that has walked up to Nats Park from behind the scoreboard should know what happened next. Wang threw too good of a strike ahead in the count 1-2 and Zimmerman deposited it in the Yankees bullpen. I do not know if I have ever been happier leaving a baseball game than I was that day.
Both of those games rank fairly high in favorite and memorable games I have attended and they both came all the way back in 2006, but Ryan Zimmerman was there, and here he remains. The rest of that roster has scattered to the wind, with most of them out of baseball or on the Cubs or Mets. Ryan Zimmerman, for many years, was the only good thing on the Nationals and with Vegas having released their Cy Young and MVP odds today most of the focus on the Nats is on Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Before it is all said and done Harper is going to be a better player than Ryan Zimmerman, but for right now Zimmerman is still the face of the franchise and the best player on the team.
Last week, I looked at what it would take for Harper to win MVP and a lot has to go right as well as voters being convinced to vote for Harper. As we’ve all learned in the past, being the best player isn’t always enough to win an MVP award. As soon as I posted that, someone posed the question to me of what would it take for Zimmerman to win the MVP. I included my thoughts in the Citizens of Natstown Washington Baseball Annual, but let me sum them up quickly here. Zimmerman has to play like he did in 2009 and 2010 when he was a 7.3 and 7.2 fWAR player. In 2009 Zimmerman had the fourth best fWAR in the NL behind Pujols, Utley, and Hanley Ramirez and in 2010 he was third behind Pujols and Votto.
A lot of that fWAR value for Zimmerman came from his glove and he has lost a little of that value in recent seasons, but I am not convinced it is because his range has diminished or he has lost a step or anything like that. Back when Cristian Guzman was the Nationals short stop Zimmerman would routinely cut him off when the short stop had the easier throw, but Guzman was not the best short stop in the league and Zimmerman was the best third baseman. Zimmerman’s aggressiveness on balls to his left has diminished since Desmond has found his rhythm in the majors and Zimmerman has shown no issue letting Desmond take charge on ground balls that both have a play on. The other big issue with defense has been Zimmerman’s shoulder issues, which he has been suffering from starting in 2011. Zimmerman worked on altering his throwing motion to lessen the pain but finally relented to off-season shoulder surgery this past off-season and hopes that this will help him return to his natural throwing motion.
The other big point for Zimmerman having a chance at MVP is that after getting the cortisone shot in 2012 he played like an MVP. His OPS from June 24 until the end of the season of .967 would have ranked behind only Ryan Braun in the NL and ahead of MVP Buster Posey. If Zimmerman had played the entire season as he did post-cortisone he would have had a very good shot at being the NL MVP, and there is no reason to think that if he can stay healthy for the entire season that Zimmerman can’t play to that level for all of 2013. While Harper has to make vast strides in his game to be considered at an MVP level, Ryan Zimmerman has played at that level before and twice did it over the course of an entire season. There are people that now want to rank David Wright or Chase Headley ahead of him as the best NL third baseman, but that is a mistake. When healthy, there is no one better offensively and defensively at the position than Ryan Zimmerman.
Between Sports Illustrated, Under Armour commercials, and Chipotle cards Bryce Harper is quickly becoming the face of MLB. It won’t be long until Harper is also the face of the Nationals. Zimmerman still has many years of productive baseball left in him, but 2013 might be his last season as the best player on the Nationals, and what better way to cap it off than an MVP award? Ryan Zimmerman has played at that level before and now that he is fully healthy and in the midst of his prime there should be no doubt that he can do so again.