FOTF: Ryan Zimmerman and Tom Verducci

The Nationals have signed Ryan Zimmerman to two contracts since his rookie deal in 2005. Before the 2009 season, Zimmerman signed a 5-year, $45-million contract. Only three years later, in 2012, Zimmerman signed a 6-year, $100-million extension that runs through 2019.

In 2009, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated took on the deal after it was signed, and in 2012 he wrote about it just before an actual deal came together. In both cases, he criticized the Nationals and, by extension, Zimmerman. In both cases, he was wrong in a myriad of ways, but mostly in a narrative he just couldn’t let go.

In the first case, Verducci compared Zimmerman to Edwin Encarnacion, whose new deal at the time was $7.6 million for two years. Encarnacion has hit 78 home runs with a .923 OPS for the Blue Jays in the last two seasons, but in 2009, he was coming off a career year in 2008 in which his OPS was .807. Additionally, his defense at third base was bad enough to earn him the moniker “E-5.”

Verducci’s analysis began poorly:

  • “They were born a year apart.” True, in that Encarnacion was born in 1983 and Zimmerman in 1984. But the former was born on January 7 and the latter on September 28, so you’re really talking nearly two years. And note that Verducci’s language leaves the identity of the younger player, which is Zimmerman, ambiguous.
  • “Both are third basemen.” True, but how well did they play their position? Zimmerman’s defensive reputation (at the time) was already sterling, and the numbers backed it up. Meanwhile, Encarnacion had the aforementioned nickname and a career 74 errors and negative-37 DRS. Even now, Zimmerman at least still plays at third base, while Encarnacion doesn’t even see the field most days now, mostly playing as the designated hitter.
Verducci then pointed to their similar stat lines on offense, as if his age and position points held water, which they didn’t.
Verducci’s theory at the time was that the Nationals were “trying to gain some traction” who needed a “face of the franchise.” It’s a sort of pet theory of his, as he came back to it three years later.
Verducci’s conclusion here ended up hilarious in hindsight, as he noted that Zimmerman’s “OPS+ [had] declined three straight years since his 20-game cameo in 2005.” In 2009, Zimmerman would hit .292/.364/.525, make the All Star Game, and post 7.3 WAR, while Encarnacion was traded to Toronto at the deadline having played 43 games and hitting .209/.333/.374 with a negative WAR. It took two more years before comparisons between the two players stopped being laughable. I don’t think we can give Verducci too much credit.
Forward to 2012, and Verducci would still be on about Zimmerman’s “perceived value as a ‘franchise player'” while arguing against an extension, pointing to Zimmerman’s durability (actually a good point!) and comparing him unfavorably to David Wright and Eric Chavez before returning once again to the idea of the “face of the franchise.”
Where Verducci went really wrong this time, however, was in his estimate of what Zimmerman’s extension would look like. Using contracts of Jose Reyes and Alex Rodriguez as a baseline, he came up with seven years, $123 million, and then suggested the Nationals would have to offer even more because of the new contract Jayson Werth had signed for $126 million. He warned that “putting a value on the ‘face of the franchise’ isn’t just an emotional, impulse buy.” (He was writing two days before the deadline.)
Well, he was only off by a year and $23 million. It’s almost as if the Nationals didn’t put a value on this face of the franchise business. 
And that’s the real fault I find in Verducci’s opinion of Ryan Zimmerman and the Nationals over the years. He emphasizes perception rather than actual value on the field, as if a Major League Baseball front office is going to do the same. We all make mistakes in analysis or forecasting, but we don’t have to make mistakes like this. Hopefully, when Verducci is writing in 2018 or 2019 about Zimmerman’s next contract, he will eliminate the face of the franchise “argument” from his narrative.

Besides, the face of the franchise will be Bryce Harper well before then.

The "State" of Sports in DC

A couple thoughts on my mind as the Redskins cut Hunter Smith and the Nationals trade Josh Willingham.

First, the Redskins. Coach Mike Shanahan claims that the botched hold in the team’s 17-16 loss to Tampa Bay last Sunday was not the reason the Redskins cut holder/punter Hunter Smith. Shanahan claims Smith’s hang time has not been up to par. My reaction: riiiiiiiiiiight… the timing is just a funny coincidence. I call BS on this one. If he’s been bad all year, why would you wait 13 games and get knocked out of playoff contention before you cut him? This team is just a mess; has been for years, will be for years to come, and this move is pretty typical.

Now, the Nationals. OF Josh Willingham was traded for Corey Brown, a 25-year-old outfielder who has never made it past AAA and never played well higher than AA, and Henry Rodriguez, a 23-year-old relief pitcher who can throw fast. An uninspiring haul; maybe the reliever will work out (and he did throw 27 2/3 innings in the Major Leagues last year), but the team’s weakness is not the bullpen. Realistically, however, if they had to trade Willingham, they probably got the most they could. But consider, Willingham spent two years in DC, during which he reached base 38% of the time with 40 home runs – pretty good numbers. He is, of course, also 31 (32 by the beginning of next season) and injury-prone. This sounds far too much like someone to whom the Nationals just gave 126 million dollars, but in the case of Willingham it makes him expendable.

Regardless, the Nats’ moves have been justifiable if they continue to change the roster. They still desperately need a first baseman (they already had a pretty good one, but didn’t want to commit 3-4 more years to him). And the current lineup is pretty uninspiring after 3B Ryan Zimmerman and their $126-million-man. Plus, they could use some starting pitchers, although there aren’t any available that are much better than what they have, unless they want to trade away half their prospects.

In general, however, at least there’s a chance the moves the Nationals have made will all work out in the end. That’s far more than can be said for their NFL counterparts.