Zimmerman not moving off the hot corner anytime soon

Last night’s Rays win over the Rangers in the American League play-in game means that former Nationals great David DeJesus will taste the postseason for the first time in his 11-year big league career.

What do you think DeJesus will remember most about this season - finally reaching the playoffs, or those three at-bats he got in a Nationals uniform back in August?

They’re probably about even, is my guess.

If someone was stranded in a cave without TV or the Internet for the last six months, and today they looked strictly at the statistics from this season, they might wonder whether Ryan Zimmerman’s defense will force the Nationals to move him away from the hot corner as soon as next season.

Zimmerman committed 21 errors this year, fourth-most in the majors. According to Fangraphs, he finished the season with a minus-14 UZR, the catch-all defensive metric that measures runs saved or given up defensively. By that metric, Zimmerman was the third-worst defensive infielder in the game this season.

Look beyond those numbers, however, and you’ll see something more. You’ll see that Zimmerman, who had surgery last winter to clean out the A/C joint in his throwing shoulder, steadily improved defensively as his health improved and as the season went on, and by the end of the year, he was back to firing strong, accurate throws across the diamond.

Over his first 27 games this season, Zimmerman made a whopping eight errors and had a lowly fielding percentage of .896.

He went through a five-game span from April 12-16 where he made four errors, and then had two errors in one game back on May 11 against the Cubs, the game in which Stephen Strasburg completely unraveled in the fifth inning in a Nationals loss.

But as the season progressed, the errors started to decrease and Zimmerman’s confidence started to improve.

In July, Zimmerman committed just two throwing errors. In August, he made three. In September, Zimmerman committed just one throwing error, and went the final 21 games of the season without a throwing miscue.

Down the stretch, he made a couple spectacular defensive plays, showing off not just the glove, but arm strength that we haven’t seen from him in a while. Check out a couple things on those plays, which you can watch here and here - Zimmerman’s arm slot (straight over the top, and the throws had some mustard on it) and his positioning (a handful of feet behind the bag, indicating he has enough faith in his arm to play deeper and still be able to cut down runners at first).

Plays like that make you wonder if the days of discussing Zimmerman’s throwing issues and his slow rehab from that shoulder surgery are over.

“I wish. I hope,” Zimmerman said this weekend, after playfully rolling his eyes when the subject was broached. “It’s just like any surgery. You never know how it’s going to react or recover or how long it’s gonna take. I’ve been playing better and feeling better lately, but I still feel like I have not a ways to go. I still feel like I can get better and get more consistent. Where it is now compared to where it was at the beginning of the year, it’s obviously better.”

Zimmerman says there were times earlier this season where he had some doubts about his throwing and whether his shoulder would return to full strength and allow him to make the type of throws that helped him win a Gold Glove in 2009. He was playing when it was clear the shoulder wasn’t 100 percent healthy, but as the months went on, he started to feel more like himself again.

“I don’t think anyone ever knows (whether the strength will return). That’s the risk of having surgery,” Zimmerman said. “That’s why that should be the last resort at all times, because honestly, even if it’s a small surgery or whatever, there’s always a doubt or always a risk that something could happen or it could never come back. That’s why you try not to have it. So yeah, just like anyone, there’s always doubt.

“I think it took a little bit longer than a lot of people thought it was gonna take, but as of right now, it feels a lot better than it did at the beginning of the year.”

For more than a year now, there have been those who have wondered whether Zimmerman will need to be moved across the diamond to first base at some point soon because of his seemingly declining defensive play. That would be a move the Nationals would rather not make, not just because of Zimmerman’s defensive ceiling at third base, but also because his bat isn’t as valuable at first, a position where offense is typically more of a priority.

But the Nats have no intentions of moving Zimmerman from the hot corner anytime soon. His play down the stretch might’ve shown fans and reporters that he’s rounding back into form defensively, but general manager Mike Rizzo says he never had enough doubt in Zimmerman’s defense to consider shifting him to first base next year.

“No, I never had any discussions or thoughts about anyone else,” Rizzo said. “He was our third baseman of the future and a middle-of-the-lineup hitter, and I knew that as his shoulder was rehabbing and getting better each and every day that he’d be the defensive guy that we’ve had in the past and hopefully we’ll have in the future.”

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