Productive as ever, Zimmerman embraces part-time role

Ryan Zimmerman knows what you’re thinking. He knows you want him to play more than he is. He knows you believe he should be in the Nationals lineup more than a couple of times a week. And he gets it.

But he also knows it would be a mistake in the long run.

“You hear everyone saying, and rightfully so: ‘This guy’s raking. How are you not finding him more playing time?’ ” the 36-year-old first baseman said Friday afternoon during an in-person interview near the backstop at Nationals Park. “The reason he’s doing so well is that he’s doing what he’s supposed to do. People don’t understand that. That’s what I signed up for.”

That’s what he signed up for. Zimmerman didn’t return from a year away from baseball to rejoin the Nats on a modest $1 million contract to be the everyday first baseman. He knew that job now belonged to Josh Bell, who makes six times as much.

Zimmerman returned for a 16th season with the only franchise he’s ever been employed by because he felt he could still help this team win as a bench player. Start a few games at first base when Bell needed a day off. Pinch-hit in big spots late. Maybe serve as a late-inning defensive replacement.

That was the plan going in, and that’s going to remain the plan. Even as he proves, remarkably, to be the team’s most productive hitter.

Zimmerman-Curtain-Call-White-Sidebar.jpgWith the season now slightly more than one-quarter complete, Zimmerman is producing as well as he ever has. He ended the week batting .316 with five homers and 14 RBIs. His .557 slugging percentage is 81 points higher than his career mark and currently ranks eighth among all National League hitters with at least 80 plate appearances. His .906 OPS ranks 11th in the league.

“I don’t think if you asked anybody in that clubhouse, they’re surprised by his production,” said Jon Lester, the veteran left-hander who competed against Zimmerman for years and is now his teammate for the first time. “I think everybody expects him to be the consummate pro and go out there and do this whenever his name’s called upon.”

Notoriously a streaky hitter, even in his prime, Zimmerman has yet to come close to slumping. His longest 0-for streak of the season is five at-bats. He has recorded at least one hit in 12 of the 16 games he’s started, with multiple hits in six of them. As a pinch-hitter, he sports a 1.083 OPS, third-best in the majors among those who have taken at least 10 at-bats off the bench.

So again, you’re saying to yourself: Why isn’t he playing more?

“Not that I can’t,” he admitted. “You saw at the beginning of the year when Josh had to deal with the COVID stuff, I’m capable of doing it, for periods of time. I just can’t play 135-140 games any more, and I’m at peace with that. I know that’s what I’m here to do, and I’ve taken it as a challenge to be the best I can in this new role that I’ve adopted.”

Those who only started paying close attention to the Nationals since they became annual contenders over the last decade don’t remember this, but those who have been following since the beginning know Zimmerman once was a force as an everyday player. From 2006-13, he averaged 140 games and 610 plate appearances, with 33 doubles, 22 homers, 83 RBIs and an .827 OPS. He also played as good a third base as anyone has ever played in this town. (Yes, even better than Anthony Rendon.)

Then his body started betraying him. It began with an ever-worsening shoulder injury that forced him to leave the hot corner and move permanently across the diamond, where throws were far less frequent. But there were other ailments over the years as well. To his hamstrings. To his obliques. To his feet. From 2014-19, he averaged only 92 games and 364 plate appearances, 21 doubles, 15 homers, 57 RBIs and a .793 OPS.

Now, after opting out of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season to ensure he wasn’t putting his family at risk, Zimmerman looks rejuvenated. He’s producing like he’s 26, not 36. And he knows why.

“It helps not having to play every day, to be honest with you,” he said. “The last four, five years when I was playing every day, the injuries and things like that (happened). It’s been nice to start a couple times a week, pinch-hit, really be able to take care of my body and do the most I can to stay healthy. So when it is my chance to play, I can produce. You can’t get away with that when you’re supposed to be an everyday player.”

Zimmerman isn’t just kicking his feet up and enjoying all this time off. He has fully embraced the new role, bonding with fellow reserves Yadiel Hernandez, Andrew Stevenson, Jordy Mercer and Alex Avila in the batting tunnel during games. He’s the proud captain of a new segment of the roster calling itself the “S.O.B.’s,” which stands not for what you think it does but for “Studs Off the Bench.”

He’s also studying the game like never before, taking advantage of all the time he spends in the dugout to recognize trends and anticipate upcoming managerial decisions he never could afford to focus on as an everyday player.

“I’ve talked more baseball and watched the game more than I have in 15 years,” said the guy who self-deprecatingly referred to himself in a TV interview this weekend as “just employee No. 11.”

Zimmerman’s approach and work ethic have rubbed off on those around him.

“To come into this season and have that role, he’s shown what it is to be a professional,” said Josh Harrison, currently the Nationals’ starting second baseman but no stranger to life as a utility man during his career. “And also at the same time staying ready. Just ‘cause you’re not starting every day doesn’t mean you might not get a big at-bat or big pinch-hit. It’s refreshing to see. ‘Cause you’ve got a guy who has been doing it as long as him and still producing. It’s definitely refreshing.”

Which raises another question: Could Zimmerman keep doing this for several more seasons and prolong a career he could’ve chosen to end after he finally achieved what he set out to do 14 years earlier and won the World Series?

He’s not ready to declare anything about his future yet, and he insists he will take this year-by-year for as long as he continues to play. But watch the way he’s enjoying himself on the field, and listen to the way he talks about how things have gone so far this season. It’s not hard to tell he believes he’s still got a lot more baseball in him.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “My family lives here. I woke up this morning and dropped my kids off at school. Tomorrow I’ll get to have dinner after the 4 o’clock game. I have an advantage of doing a lot of things that other people don’t get to do. That helps.

“As of right now, my wife is still OK with it, so that’s good, too. Going on 10-day road trips with three kids at home, even though her family is here and we have some people to help out, it’s still a tough gig for her. But I think all of us missed baseball last year. The whole family did. And I don’t think Heather realized how much a part of her life baseball was and still is. She said it was weird to not have games to go to, or the other wives to hang out with. So I think all of us really missed it.”

So did Nationals fans, who have made a point to shower Zimmerman with love every time he steps to the plate this season. It’s even brought out a little more sentimentality in a crusty old veteran who often sarcastically scoffs at the curtain calls he gets after hitting a three-run homer or setting one of the dozen franchise records he now holds.

When he broke the latest of those franchise records Saturday afternoon, scoring his 948th career run to leapfrog Expos great Tim Raines on the all-time list, Zimmerman genuinely seemed touched by the ovation he received from the crowd of 15,440. He touched his hand to his heart. He turned to wave to fans seated in the outfield. He soaked it all up, maybe because after a year away he’s starting to appreciate all of this a little more.

“People always say, ‘Don’t take it for granted,’” he said. “And when you’re in it, you don’t really think about it. But yeah, it makes you realize how much fun it is, and how much you enjoy playing major league baseball.”

Right now, Zimmerman is very much enjoying playing baseball as a part-timer. And he doesn’t sound ready to stop enjoying it.

“Do it as long as it works for me and my family,” he said, before adding: “And I’m productive. When I’m done producing, I’m not going to hang on. I’m done when I’m done. But I think I’ve got a good amount left in the tank.”

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