David Wright vs. Ryan Zimmerman

Mets third baseman David Wright (left) and Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

CHRIS NEEDHAM: When you root for a team that’s mathematically eliminated before the solstice each year, you need to take pleasure from individual moments and achievements. As such, fans of the Nats have this odd obsession of figuring out who their All-Star rep is going to be.  (They also have a strange obsession with who the emergency catcher is, but that’s a different story.)

One of the most popular candidates has been Ryan Zimmerman — aka “The Face.”  But those fans pushing him never really stopped to look around.  In past seasons, Ryan Zimmerman likely wouldn’t have made the NL East All-Star Team, falling behind Chipper Jones and David Wright.

But this year?  Things are different.  He’s taken the leap, and his 30-game hitting streak showed that to everyone. It’s easy to dismiss it as some sort of unimportant statistical fluke (and there’s some truth to it), but if you watched him during the streak, you saw an elite player.  Hits weren’t blooping in; he was lining them.

He’s a far different player than he was in past seasons.  The stats show it, but so will your eyes. He’s hitting the ball harder, and with more command of the zone than he has in the past.  He’s shown a tremendous ability to power the ball up the middle and to the opposite field.  He waits, waits, waits, then pounces on the ball like a viper, smashing it the other way.  He finally has control of both sides of the plate.

In the past, right-handed pitchers befuddled him.  A steady diet of off-speed slop produced a bunch of weak swings.  Often he missed.  But when he didn’t, he’d smack a weak grounder. This season, he’s batting .373 against RHP, with an ungodly .648 slugging average.  So it’s not just that he’s making more contact.  He’s making more solid contact.

Nobody expects him to quite keep up that pace, but it’s probably not accurate to dismiss this all as a one-time blip.  The eyes really do show that his approach is different, and there are a number of factors that mean this could be sustainable. First is the hitting coach.  The Nats fired Lenny Harris in the off-season and brought on Rick Eckstein.  During Harris’ reign of error, pretty much every batter regressed.  Those that didn’t stagnated. Harris preached a “swing at the first strike” approach that probably served him well when he was a pinch-hitter going up against a two-pitch reliever.  Zimmerman seemed to take this to heart, swinging at far too many pitchers’ pitches. Harris also wasn’t one for mechanical adjustments.  He simply didn’t know how to coach, and really couldn’t offer Zimmerman any advice.

Second is his health.  Zimmerman’s last two years were a bit shaky because he was banged up.  Certainly last season — when many expected a breakout — was done in by injuries.  He had had hamate surgery, which often saps power, then once he seemed to be recovering, he had shoulder problems.  Even if he did improve last season, the injuries would have hidden that.

Third is his age.  He’s still just 24.  You’d expect that his age and experience level would lead to a breakout one of these years.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, is the lineup around him.  Protection is a bit of a hoary old saw.  But with Zimmerman, it seems like there’s some truth to it.  He’s surrounded by Nick Johnson and  Adam Dunn, and it looks like it’s meant the world to him. It’s allowed him to relax, for one.  He doesn’t feel like he has to carry the load as he did in past seasons.  It often felt like he was trying to do too much, to be the hero.  Now, he knows he’s got some help. But it’s also, he says, helped him see some better pitches.

Interestingly, it’s not in the way the sportswriters generally talk about. During his hitting streak, someone asked him about the value of Dunn hitting behind him.  Zimmerman answered with his typical cliched answer, but expanded on it.  He argued that it was Nick Johnson, who hits ahead of him, who helped just as much.  He said that having the Walking Stick on base in front of him half the time helped him see better pitches. It isn’t that NJ was a threat to steal, but that with him on, the pitcher was already in a jam.

David Wright has been great for a number of years, but it looks like Zimmerman’s right there with him now.  The bats are awfully close. And although the Gold Glove went to Wright, Zimmerman is the better defender to the eye and to most of the stats. The idea of Zimmerman matching David Wright seemed farcical three years ago, but not anymore.  Zimmerman has caught up and — for this season, at least — passed the NY heartthrob.

HOWARD MEGDAL: I don’t want to take this away from you, Chris. Taking pride from a Washington Nationals fan is a lot like taking candy from a baby, then punching it in the face.

And make no mistake about it: I love watching Ryan Zimmerman play. One of my favorite parts of having MLB Extra Innings is getting to see Zimmerman play on a regular basis (come to think of it, Washington has many players I like, and I think they aren’t far from contending- bit that’s for another time.)

But based on the available evidence, David Wright, who has been the better player by far during both his and Ryan Zimmerman’s career to date, is the far better bet moving forward.

Obviously, Chris isn’t making the claim that Zimmerman has been better in his first four years (2005-2008) than Wright in his first five years (2004-2008). However, it is instructive to see just how much better Wright has been to get a sense of why he’s likely to be the superior player in the future.

In his first major league action, Zimmerman was excellent: .397/.419/.569. Of course, that was in just 58 at-bats. Wright in his first action was merely very good: .293/.332/.525, but in a more significant 263 at-bats.

Now look side by side OPS in years 2, 3 and 4:

YEAR 2 Zimmerman .822 Wright .912

YEAR 3 Zimmerman .788 Wright .912

YEAR 4 Zimmerman .774 Wright .963

Wright has, via experience, a .924 year five. Notice that even this year, Zimmerman’s breakout season, he’s at .339/.400/.583 entering May 27′s games. That’s a .983 OPS, largely on the strength of his best month ever. Wright, who suffered through a difficult April… is at .964 OPS.

Chris makes the point that Zimmerman was victimized by injuries in his fourth year, and this is true. But does this argue for Zimmerman moving forward? It means that he’s already suffered through some injuries, while Wright has never missed significant time (this certainly feels like a jinx even to say, particularly given the injuries every other New York Met has suffered).

Now the major advantage Zimmerman has is relative youth. But the difference between the two is well shy of two years. And consider that at the age Zimmerman is now, Wright already had a career OPS of .921. Zimmerman, entering May 27, is exactly 100 points lower, at .821.

Defensively, UZR does seem to like Zimmerman better so far this year, while over the full season in 2008, the edge went to Wright. In 2007, it was Zimmerman. Does this mean, if healthy, Zimmerman is better defensively? Probably. However, Wright is plenty good with the glove. And the bats just aren’t close, unless Zimmerman has found his true performance level in 2009. Any offensive regression from this high point, OPS-wise, and he’s still looking up at David Wright.

CHRIS NEEDHAM: I don’t think you can wave two years of youth away, especially when he’s now showing that he’s capable of batting like Wright.  There were lots of mitigating circumstances for why Zimmerman hadn’t shown the kind of bat he is now — park, coaching, lineup, injuries.

You’re certainly right that ummm… Wright has a longer track record of doing it.  And perhaps Zimmerman’s going to regress a bit.  But Zimmerman batted almost as well in the last month or two of last season — once he finally started getting over the injuries.  He’s a better player than he’s shown offensively.

I don’t think he’ll meet Wright’s bat year in, year out, but there’s something on the order of a 5-10 run difference in their gloves that makes up for a good chunk of it.

Wright’s probably a better player, but Zimmerman is certainly in the same peer group with him.  Finally.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing Zimmerman isn’t an elite player. But the difference defensively, if it even exists, hasn’t been made up yet between Zimmerman and David Wright at the age Zimmerman is now, let alone to current level David Wright.

You’re right that Zimmerman was better in the second half last year, for instance. After returning on July 22, Zimmerman hit .306/.370/.455, or an .825 OPS.

If you parse further, Zimmerman was even better in September 2008: .290/.347/.516, or .863 OPS. All in his age-23 season!

In his age-23 season, David Wright hit .311/.381/.531, or a .912 OPS. In September of his age-23 season? .371/.424/.551, or .975 OPS.

It’s just too big a difference to be made up with the glovework between these two.

CHRIS NEEDHAM: “If it exists?”    I’ll give you that Wright has seemed improved to my eyes over the last year or two, but Zimmerman’s better.

Using UZR from fangraphs.com, Zimmerman’s on pace for +20 runs this season.  They were virtually tied last year (in a year that Zimmerman had a bad shoulder).  Zimmerman was +12 in 2007.  And he was about 13 runs better in 2006.

It’s safe to say that Zimmerman’s about 10 runs better than Wright with the glove.

Even Tango’s fan scouting reports say that Zimmerman is better than Wright.  (And I only voted once!  Honest!)

HOWARD MEGDAL: Best available evidence, you are correct. And I think defensive stats are immensely valuable. But I just haven’t come to terms with how valuable. In other words, I think there’s still a decent margin of error. And how does one trust a poll, for instance, without knowing what the margin of error is?

I believe Zimmerman is a marginally better defensive player than Wright. But I know Wright is a far better offensive player than Zimmerman.

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