The most underrated player in baseball

If you were going to start a franchise in 2011, which player would you take first: Albert Pujols, Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria, Joey Votto, or maybe Buster Posey? How about Ryan Zimmerman? I might.

Rob Neyer just made the fearless jump from ESPN to SBNation, and he’s started to post lists of who will be the best players at their position (here’s his list of catchers) over the next nine years, an exercise he failed miserably at when he did the same thing 11 years ago. When it comes to his top spot for the hot corner, I have a hunch who he might like best: Zimmerman.

If you’re trolling through lists of home run, batting average and RBI leaders, you won’t find him. What about year-end awards and All-Star games? Neither will you in those categories, at least not much. But Zimmerman is the epitome of a major leaguer who provides total value. He’s a well-above-average hitter and a wizard with his Rawlings at third base.

Since 2008, he has a .294 average, .364 on-base percentage (OBP) and has slugged .497, while also averaging 24 home runs per season in a park that’s difficult to go yard in. Also encouraging is the fact that he’s improved his OBP in each of the last two seasons, going from .333 in 2008, to .364 in 2009 and .388 in 2010. He can thank this improvement to his walk rate, which has climbed steadily throughout his career and has stayed above 10% the past two seasons.

Another way he’s been able to set himself apart offensively is by putting the ball in play. Since 2008, there are 30 players that rank above him in wOBA. Of this group, only a select few strike out less often than his rate of 18.4%: Dustin Pedroia, Paul Konerko, Tulowitzki, Justin Morneau, Chipper Jones, Chase Utley, Joe Mauer, Matt Holliday and Pujols.

Over that same time period (2008-2010), he’s tied for 31st in the MLB with a .370 weighted on-base average (wOBA), but what he lacks with his stick, he certainly makes up for with the leather. This is not to say he’s not much of a hitter, because he is, especially when you consider he’s hit better away from Nationals Park, which has suppressed his home run totals.

Most players thrive on their home turf, but Nationals Park has had a below-average home run park factor in each of its three seasons since opening, which helps to shed some light on why Zimmerman hit just nine of his 25 home runs at home in 2010.

It’s not that he does any one thing offensively that’s outstanding, but he does everything extremely well, with the exception of stealing bases. If you’re not convinced that’s the making of a top-tier player, consider it was enough to make Craig Biggio one of the greatest second baseman of all time.

Defensively, he’s simply a beast. What’s odd (or perhaps not, given their record) is that the Gold Glove voters got Zimmerman right in 2009, and then somehow in 2010 went back to the incumbent from years past: Scott Rolen. In 2010, the Fielding Bible had him at second, a measly one point behind American Leaguer Evan Longoria, but Zimmerman still had more first-place votes than any other player at the position (six versus the three Longoria received).

In 2009, he ranked first (again with the most first-place votes). He’s ranked in the top 10 at third every season since the Fielding Bible’s evaluations were first available in 2006. The kid has skills.

His closest comparable is fellow third baseman Longoria, a player with playing market issues to be sure, but not branding. It’s pretty well known that he’s one of the best players in baseball, and probably has two reasons to thank for this: 1) he won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2008 and 2) his team has won the AL East in two of the past three seasons, an enormous accomplishment given their budget and competition: Boston and New York.

So what of his total value? In 2010, Zimmerman placed third in Fangraphs WAR for the NL with 7.2 wins. He finished sixteenth in MVP voting. That was even behind closer Brian Wilson, a good one but just a closer, nonetheless. Seriously? Yes, seriously.

In 2009, he finished fifth in Fangraphs WAR, only to place twenty-fifth in MVP voting—at least they gave him the Gold Glove he deserved, in that season. I guess (read: I know) that’s what happens when your team has averaged 99 losses the past three seasons.

In the past three years, he’s seventh in total Wins Above Replacement (WAR) with 16.4 wins, behind only a few obscure characters you may or may not have heard of (you should have, since they keep magically appearing in this article): Pujols, Utley, Longoria, Ramirez, Mauer and Holliday. If you exclude 2008, he jumps to third.

But if there is one factor that does give me pause in all of this Franchise Player talk, though, it’s a point Neyer brought up recently—he picked up on it by way of Bill James Online, when James spoke about players’ defensive reputations. Neyer called it: “The Most Important Thing You Will Read This Week.” The gist: players peak in defensive value much younger than they do in terms of offensive value.

If Zimmerman’s defensive skills erode normally, he’ll have to pick up some of that slack offensively. If he can’t, he’s in danger of going from elite player to very good or great player. It should go without saying that the former is a prerequisite of a true Franchise Player.

Luckily, beating the odds in this category isn’t unprecedented. What’s more, it’s not unprecedented at the third base position. Adrian Beltre has been a defensive behemoth at the position for roughly a decade. He’s racked up a remarkable 125.0 UZR at the position since 2002. If Zimmerman can duplicate this, he’ll continue to be among the game’s elite players. If not, he should continue to be a top-tier one for at least the next few seasons.

I can’t help but wonder if he’d be further along in his relevancy as a major league player if he hadn’t finished just four votes behind Hanley Ramirez in the 2006 NL Rookie of the Year voting. Ramirez deserved to win the award, but the point still stands.

Sadly, he might be a player that continues to be overshadowed; not only across baseball and at his position, but even within his own franchise. He has duel phenoms (and No. 1 draft picks) Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to compete with, as well as the next $126 million dollar mistake: Jayson Werth.

The Nationals would have been prudent to nail down Zimmerman for a little longer—he is signed through 2013 for another $35 million—with the money they spent on 32-year-old Werth by signing him to a team-friendly long term deal. Knowing what they had, that’s exactly what Tampa Bay executive Andrew Friedman did with Longoria.

But the Nationals didn’t, and they’ll more than likely pay for it down the road. When it comes to year-end award voting, national recognition, and winning ballgames, so, too, will Zimmerman.

As I mentioned at the outset of this piece, I might select Zimmerman to head my franchise were I starting one today. Doing so is a slippery business given the handful of disasters that can derail a player’s career, injuries chief among them. But the fact that he’s in the conversation is saying something.

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Graham Womack
13 years ago

Great first article here, Rory.

You got me thinking with your question about who to select as a franchise player. Were this basketball, my answer would be Chris Paul, no question. Championship teams in the NBA can be built around elite point guards. It seems rare these guys don’t at least get their teams somewhere into the playoffs.

Baseball’s a tougher call. Does success ultimately come down to an MVP middle infielder? A workhorse ace pitcher? A once-in-a-generation bat in Pujols? Me, I’d probably go with Joe Mauer. I can’t see any better way to start a team than with a Gold Glove catcher with a .327 career batting average. And his career WAR (36.3 in seven seasons) is far and away better than any catcher who’s been in the bigs under a decade.

Dave Studeman
13 years ago

Welcome to THT, Rory.  Nice article.

this guy
13 years ago

Rob Neyer is a baboon.

Rory Paap
13 years ago

Thanks Graham, Dave, Jeffrey and Billiam.

I wouldn’t take Mauer. A couple reasons: he’s not super young at 28, and having been in the league since 21 he’s got some miles. He’s only caught 110 games the past two seasons, and there’s reason to believe he’s not staying at catcher forever (or even very much longer). He’s had injuries, too. If you move him to another position, which will be 1B or DH, his bat doesn’t play as well—it goes from super elite to very good. 2009 is looking like a outlier, not the norm. Lastly, his GGs are starting to smell of the Derek Jeter variety.

I’ll bite on Longoria and add another reason he’s a good candidate: he plays in the tougher league, and the best division in baseball.

Jeffrey Gross
13 years ago

Great article Rory. Look forward to more. I’d say I’d have to select Evan Longoria, however, just because he’s a full year younger and plays comparably in a worse-for-hitters park…

13 years ago

Great article.  THT is lucky to have you.

barney fife
13 years ago

the proper word is ‘dual,’ rather than ‘duel,’ unless they’re going to breaking out the guns at dawn.

Brandon T
13 years ago

Mauer could probably handle third pretty well. He’s a good athlete and has a strong arm.