Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, Mackey Sasser: Each experienced, at some point in his career, a debilitating mental block when it came to throwing a baseball. They call it the "yips" — defined by the Mayo Clinic as "involuntary wrist spasms." It's a mental issue, though. Throwing troubles helped to end the careers of Knoblauch and Sasser before it was otherwise time. And it took Sax a long time to get over them.
The case of Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals is not like that Sax, Knoblauch or Sasser. Not yet. But he does have a throwing problem right now, and it's not a physical one.
Mark Zuckerman of Nats Insider reports that Zimmerman, a Gold Glove winner at third base in 2009, and one of the top defensive players at his position by any metric, has made four throwing errors in the past five games:
And that doesn't include a number of routine throws that were not on target but were close enough for first baseman Adam LaRoche to snag without taking his foot off the bag.
And for the first time last night, Zimmerman publicly acknowledged the mental challenge he's facing, insisting there's nothing physically preventing him from making those throws, most notably his surgically repaired shoulder.
"Nope, shoulder feels great," he said. "That's why it's so frustrating. I was just going into the dugout and talking to some of the guys. Nobody's more frustrated than me. I'm the guy out there that doesn't want to do it more than anyone."
Things reached a point last night where Zimmerman felt the need to approach LaRoche and shortstop Ian Desmond in the Nationals dugout and ask for their advice.
Desmond is a year younger at 27 but has played in just under half as many games as Zimmerman, who recently notched his 1,000th career appearance. Desmond made 34 errors as a rookie in 2010, and beat that mark twice in the minors, so he's been there. And it's easy to tell from his comments that he looks up to Zimmerman, and doesn't think he's going to have this problem forever:
Desmond was taken aback by Zimmerman feeling the need to seek help. And after the game, the young shortstop offered a lengthy, passionate display of support and confidence in his teammate, recognizing the attention this issue is beginning to draw.
"People blowing it up more than it is, that doesn't help anything," Desmond said. "I think if this is going to be the fall of a superstar, you've got it completely wrong. You don't get to the level he's at without overcoming some things along the way."
Zuckerman's analysis of Zimmerman's throws doesn't reveal someone who is off the mark by a lot — or unable to throw at all, like what infamously happened to Sasser. Zimmerman is off ... just enough.
His throwing motion may not be a thing of beauty, but most of his errors are only slightly off-target, not spiked into the ground or launched into the stands. He makes more good throws than bad ones, and he continues to make some spectacular throws while off-balance.
"That's the frustrating part, too," he said. "I'll have a couple games in a row where I do fine and it feels great, then all of a sudden I just kind of let one go."
This might have been the most damaging of the errors, coming against the Braves:
If he can't fix the problem in the short term, there is a longterm solution. In addition to being a generally sound fielder, Zimmerman of course is one of the top sluggers at his position. He hits well enough to play first base, in fact, and while his overall value would diminish by playing across the diamond, the Nats could move him to first in the future once prospect Anthony Rendon is ready to play in the bigs. That could happen no matter if Zimmerman loses the yips or not.