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The career of Ryan Zimmerman

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What the Nationals mainstay was like as a prospect and where his career stands in context

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Yesterday a reader asked for a look at the career of Washington Nationals veteran Ryan Zimmerman. Let’s do that.

Ryan Zimmerman was a three-year starter for the University of Virginia, hitting .308/.340/.376 as a freshman in 2003. He went homer-less, but his athleticism and future potential was clear. He improved somewhat as a sophomore in ‘04, hitting .361/.395/.454 but with just one homer. His stock rose rapidly that summer after he hit .468 with four homers for Team USA.

His junior draft season in ‘05 saw a .393/.469/.581 mark, with six homers, 17 steals, and dramatically improved plate discipline with 31 walks against just 14 strikeouts in 234 at-bats. The bat was very intriguing, but scouts liked his glove even better: he was considered an outstanding defender at third base, with shortstop-caliber range, a strong throwing arm, and soft hands.

Drafted fourth-overall in the ‘05 class, Zimmerman signed quickly and was sent to Double-A, where he hit a stunning .326/.371/.528 in 63 games. Promoted to Washington for the stretch run, he was even hotter with a .397/.419/.569 mark in 20 major league contests.

In the 2006 Baseball Prospect Book, I wrote that Zimmerman looked like a complete player, a very strong hitter with a terrific glove. I wasn’t sure how much home run power he would show right away, writing that “huge home run numbers are unlikely in the short run. Expect large numbers of doubles however.” I gave him a Grade A in the 2006 book, ranking him as the Number Three hitting prospect in baseball.

Cincinnati Reds v Washington Nationals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Zimmerman made the major league roster in spring training of ‘06 and had a great rookie season, hitting .287/.351/.472 with 20 homers, 47 doubles, 110 RBI, and a 61/120 BB/K ratio in 614 at-bats. His hitting was slightly weaker in ‘07 (.266/.330/.458) but he continued bashing doubles with 43 and boosted his homer output to 24. An injury-plagued ‘08 season resulted in a .283/.333/.442 mark, but in 2009 he was healthy again and jumped up to .292/.364/.525 with 33 homers.

His defense was as good as advertised, as shown by all objective and subjective measures. His overall values according to fWAR: 3.8 in ‘06, 4.5 in ‘07, 1.9 in the injury ‘08 season, then surging to 6.6 in 2009 and another 6.6 in 2010.

Injuries took a toll from that point, though he remained an effective hitter when healthy, notably in 2017 when he hit .303/.358/.573, 3.3 fWAR. His formerly stellar defense faded with age and he’s a first baseman now, but in his prime Zimmerman met and exceeded even the optimistic expectations scouts had coming out of college.

Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Zimmerman turned 34 five days ago. If Zimmerman’s career ended today, he’d finish at .279/.344/.477, wRC+ 117, 38.4 fWAR. However, he told in September that he wants to play at least two more seasons and would be willing to accept less money to stay with the Nationals.

It seems plausible he can pick up another few points of fWAR and finish somewhere in the low 40s. In historical terms this should put him in the neighborhood of Toby Harrah (45.8), Matt Williams (44.8 fWAR), Doug DeCinces (40.5), Gary Gaetti (39), Harlond Clift (38.9), George Kell (38.2), and Pie Traynor (37.8).