WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Ryan Zimmerman played in a Grapefruit League game March 2, going 1-for-2 against the Mets. He hasn’t played in another one since, and it doesn’t appear he’ll be playing in another one until this weekend, sticking to the minor league fields as he has for the last three weeks.
It’s a highly unusual way for a major leaguer to prepare for opening day, and one that has left scores of outside observers wondering if something’s wrong. To those skeptics, Zimmerman is trying to offer some words of reassurance.
“What I want to tell you guys is: If the season was to start today and this is what I had, there’s not a doubt in my mind that I’m ready to go,” he said.
You’ll have to take Zimmerman’s word about that, because the vast majority of the at-bats he’s taken and innings he’s played have come on back fields out of the public spotlight. But today he offered up far more detail about his unconventional spring than he previously had shared, how this came about and why he believes it ultimately will leave him better prepared for the long haul of the season.
“It’s a little unorthodox, I understand,” he said. “But if I go out and hit .330 with 35 homers, then maybe everyone will do it.”
This wasn’t the initial plan when Zimmerman reported for spring training. He did intend to delay his game debut, believing there was no reason to be facing live pitching when the Grapefruit League opened for business in late February. He actually was penciled into the lineup on Feb. 25 but was scratched due to what he described as “general soreness,” a minor ailment that nonetheless convinced the 33-year-old first baseman and the Nationals to re-think their approach.
Zimmerman started taking his at-bats in minor league games, then made the one major league appearance in Port St. Lucie before returning to the back fields, where he has remained ever since.
“I didn’t really come in to camp planning on doing this,” he said. “I had the general soreness. Nothing was hurt in the beginning; it was just general soreness. So it was like: ‘Alright, we’ll push it back a week or so, we’ll take it easy.’ This was our plan. And then as this started going, it just kind of felt like I was getting more reps and better work over there.”
What’s the difference between games on the back fields and the main field? There’s far less rigid structure in the minor leagues games. For example, a hitter can choose to lead off every inning if he wants to get extra at-bats. He can skip an inning in the field if he wants. He doesn’t have to worry about trying to take an extra base or dive for a line drive the way he might feel pressured to do in a stadium full of fans.
Zimmerman said he has played up to “six or seven” innings in the field at a time, which is comparable to what other Nationals starters have played in big league games. So he doesn’t need to build up much more stamina in order to feel comfortable playing a full game nine days from now when the season opens in Cincinnati.
“I would be just fine going out tomorrow and playing nine innings,” he said.
Zimmerman said he knows of a few ballplayers who have done similar things in the past. Adam Eaton told him recent Hall of Fame electee Jim Thome barely played in major league spring training games when the two were teammates with the White Sox.
This does raise an interesting question, though: Might other players wonder why Zimmerman gets the freedom to skip the tedium of the Grapefruit League while they have to play in the games and make the road trips?
Manager Davey Martinez said he had no problem giving Zimmerman the green light to do this once the two talked it through and devised a rough game plan. Others haven’t made similar requests.
“Everyone does their own thing,” Zimmerman said. “We’re lucky we have a group that has been around for a while. There’s not many guys in there that haven’t played a big league season for less than five years. You can probably count the ones who have done that on one hand. Most of them have their routines and it’s been successful for them. So I don’t think they really want to veer from their routine. So they don’t really look at it as: ‘That guy’s lucky, he doesn’t have to play in games.’ We’ll see.”
Indeed, we’ll see. If Zimmerman gets off to a hot start in the regular season, he’ll be applauded for his preparation plan. If he struggles or gets hurt, critics will blame his lack of real game action in March.
“Some other people might be completely different, and I respect that,” he said. “And some people might think I’m crazy for doing this, and I respect that, too. But at the end of the day, it’s me that has to go out and play. And if I feel good, I feel good.”