Jordan Zimmermann and the Myth of Run Support
Yesterday Jordan Zimmermann spun six shutout innings against the Detroit Tigers, retiring 18 batters in a row after giving up a leadoff hit. That in and of itself is remarkable; but what really stood out was that Zimmermann went on to earn a no decision due to his teammates only scoring a run in support of him. This lead to what has been a constant refrain in Natstown since 2011; that Zimmermann is criminally unsupported by his teammates. Many have joked that the team must have it out for him. All of this overlooks the fact that Zimmermann isn't lacking in the run support department and in fact does pretty well.
The Rodney Dangerfielding of Zimmermann began in 2011 when he got a paltry 3.2 runs per game on average of support. That year Zimmermann had a legitimate gripe as it would be difficult for any pitcher to amass a number of wins with an offense that only scores about three runs a game for them. Even then though, the idea that Zimmermann was being singled out was overly dramatized as the other two Nats pitchers who had more than 25 starts had less than 4 runs of support as well. John Lannan averaged 3.59 runs per game and Livan Hernandez averaged 3.92. The Nationals that year just did not have a good offense, but Zimmermann still seemed to get the short end of the draw.
In 2012 however, Zimmermann's apparent bad luck ended quickly as he got 4.75 runs in support on average, an increase of 1.55 runs. This was good for second on the team with only Gio Gonzalez and his 5.50 runs in support beating him. Teammates Stephen Strasburg (4.41), Ross Detwiler (4.15) and Edwin Jackson (3.94) all came in lower. Zimmermann was also the only one of the five starters to not have a start where he got zero runs in support. If anything Zimmermann got rather lucky in terms of run support last year, so why did he still only go 12-8?
One reason is probably that he led the starters in no decisions, notching 12. In contrast Gio only had 3, Strasburg 7 and Detwiler and Jackson had 10. Four of those times Zimmermann left with the lead only to see his bullpen relinquish it, which is bad luck. But of more concern is that six times Zimmermann himself gave up either the game tying or leading runs in his final inning before exiting the game. While the narrative was that his teammates were letting him down, half of the time it was Zimmermann himself doing so.
While they are a small sample size his inning splits back this up. In innings 1-3 Zimmermann had an ERA of 1.78, but in innings 4-6 he had an ERA of 3.93, a difference of 2.15 earned runs on average. While it is typical for a pitcher to do worse each subsequent time through the lineup, a gap of 2.15 runs is not. For comparison's sake Strasburg and Jackson both improved between innings 1-3 and 4-6 by .25 and 1.41 earned runs respectively. While Detwiler and Gio did get worse but only by a modest .2 and .58 runs. Clearly Zimmermann struggles as the game moves into the later innings.
If Jordan Zimmermann wants to be the elite pitcher he would like to and can be he needs to improve significantly on going deeper into games. Even more important is finishing his outings strong rather than after giving up a lead. One thing that could potentially help with this is his change-up. If he is finally ready to add it to his repertoire he can add a number of new ways to attack hitters, keeping his approach fresh in the later innings. If Zimmermann can solve his late inning issues he will likely join the company of the elite pitchers in baseball.