If you knew nothing at all about Ryan Zimmerman or his past few years struggling with an injured shoulder that required surgery last winter, you'd guess it by watching him take grounders at third base, as he was Friday afternoon at Citi Field.
Zimmerman approaches the ball confidently, grabs it with a smooth effort befitting a one-time Gold Glove winner.
Then comes the throw, a bit of sidearm flinging over to first base. And the question becomes: hey, what's wrong with that third baseman's shoulder?
Believe it or not, that's how Zimmerman used to throw. It's how he wants to throw. And there's less wrong with it than there's been in quite some time, according to Zimmerman, to Nationals manager Davey Johnson, and even by comparing Zimmerman's mechanics now to his form back in 2009.
What followed was a multi-year struggle that was eventually diagnosed as a problem within the AC joint, or to use Zimmerman's description at the time, "It was all jammed up and gunked up in there." He'd insisted throughout 2012 that his shoulder was still fine, but it obviously wasn't.
So there's been a fair amount of attention paid to Zimmerman's continued throwing errors, which numbered 11 in his first 47 games this season. He's improved of late, though, with no errors over his last 14 games.* He laughed, though, when I approached him at his locker Friday afternoon and asked him about it. Zimmerman insists there's been no moment of epiphany, just a man recovering from shoulder surgery, and getting stronger as he puts that procedure behind him.
*A day after Zimmerman was interviewed for this article, the third baseman was charged with two errors in a 5-1 loss against the Mets, but neither was on a throw.
"No, it's just like anything else," the soft-spoken Zimmerman told me, reclining in a chair in front of his locker. "When you have surgeries or get other things done, you get progressively better and better. And just have to keep working, just go out there every day, and keep trying to get better."
That's what he was doing Friday afternoon, taking ground balls next to backup third baseman Chad Tracy. While Zimmerman's throws reached the first baseman nearly every time with accuracy, Tracy's arm and typical, over-the-top throwing motion made his throws zip across the diamond faster.
You wouldn't watch the two of them and conclude that it was Zimmerman, who agreed to a six-year, $100 million contract extension last February at the age of 27, the idea being that Zimmerman would be the third baseman for the Nationals well into his 30s. His career OPS+ of 121 would be acceptable at first base, where his throwing would be far less important. But he's an elite player at third.
Still, that unorthodox throwing motion is what he utilized for years. By contrast, seeing him throw in, say, 2012, was to see a third baseman with a more traditional over-the-top follow-through. He'd been trying to compensate for several years, so what looked from the outside to be a healthier throw was really a call across the diamond for help.
Let's compare the two. Here's Zimmerman in 2009:
Here's Zimmerman in 2012:
Accordingly, a return to the throwing motion of his best seasons meant, essentially, relearning how to do it.
"He had that impingement in there," Johnson told me and other reporters surrounding him in the Nationals' dugout Friday afternoon. "He'd been throwing that way for two or three years. So I knew it was going to take him a while to get comfortable. But I think he's in a good spot right now. And he should only get better."
One key, Zimmerman said, was when he healed sufficiently to begin taking the 30 or so ground balls before the game he was used to taking prior to getting hurt. When the season started, he still wasn't comfortable enough taking so many, and he thinks that may have affected his ability to repeat his new/old motion in games.
"Yeah, that was the hardest part for me," Zimmerman said. "'Cause I'm a guy who likes to take ground balls, likes to have that muscle memory and routine. Early in my career I might have even taken more." Zimmerman showed no ill effects while doing so on Friday afternoon. And after his full complement of grounders was complete, he headed into the box and lined the ball around the park. He looked, in other words, like the franchise player the Nationals are relying on him to be, having moved top hitting prospect Anthony Rendon from third base to second base.
Still, Zimmerman isn't under any illusions that recovery from surgery is necessary linear. Nor is Johnson, for that matter, having sat him earlier this week to rest his shoulder, while acknowledging that Zimmerman is taking anti-inflammation medication. Beats the multiple cortisone shots he needed to get through last season, though.
"The year after you have work done, there's gonna be ups and downs," Zimmerman said. "Nobody can predict the future, obviously. Hopefully we can continue to stay on that path where it keeps getting better. And like you said, the past month, it keeps getting better."
Indeed, Johnson looks like a prophet. He said back in spring training that right around now is when Zimmerman would begin to look like his old self.
"I said in the spring it would be mid-June, late-June before he'd be feeling comfortable, and before he could do his throwing, his throwing motion came naturally," Johnson said. "And I think that's where he's getting. I think he's feeling more comfortable. And whatever position gets him the ball, to have a natural throwing motion over to first. I think his arm strength, and the slot that his arm goes into, he's starting to feel more natural about it."
The improvement is a relief to the Nationals, of course, but it is also welcome news for Zimmerman, who considers himself a third baseman, and isn't eager for that to change.
"It's the only place I've played here," Zimmerman said. "And it's one of those things where it feels like, that's my position. I'll play there as long as I continue to be good there," he added, chuckling.
In the meantime, he's not ready to take for granted what was routine for years for a gifted third baseman like Zimmerman: the flawless third-to-first throw. Natural talent, consistent work and the healing process had an added component: superstition. He said he hadn't discussed the 14-game errorless streak until we discussed it Friday afternoon. I asked if talking about the streak would affect it.
"Ah, I hope not," Zimmerman said. "But if so, it's your fault."