Jordan Zimmermann: The Man Who Was to be the Ace
Jordan Zimmermann came to the Nationals in a somewhat unusual fashion. Not unusual in any interesting or meaningful way but only in the amount of anger that was caused that the Nationals decided to take the draft picks from losing Alfonso Soriano to free agency then by trading him at the deadline for prospects. There was the thought that closer to major league prospects would have been better than high end draft picks, and in the case of Josh Smoker that may have been the case, but with the second pick the Nats acquired from the Cubs they took a division III pitcher from the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. What attracted them to this pitcher was his overall toughness. The main highlight video that surfaced was of him pitching in the snow with his jaw wired shut. The Nationals believed it was that type of bulldog mentality that top of the rotation starters are made out of.
There was a time, before Stephen Strasburg, before Gio Gonzalez, when Jordan Zimmermann was going to be the Ace of the Nationals. It wasn't that long ago really. Zimmermann didn't make very many starts in the minors in 2009, the year he was called up, but in 2008 he was dominant. He started 24 games finishing the season at AA Harrisburg and with a 2.89 ERA, 9.0 K/9, and 3.2 BB/9. It was a showing that got many Nationals fans excited and when he debuted in the majors in 2009 he was off to a promising start pitching to a relatively high 4.63 ERA, but that will happen when your middle infield is made up of Cristian Guzman and Ronnie Belliard. Jordan Zimmermann pitched well that season striking out 9.1 per nine innings and walking a paltry 2.9. Then it happened. Jordan Zimmermann felt tightness in his elbow, and that was all it was thought to be, but it never cleared up, and turned out his UCL was damaged.
While Zimmermann was receiving and then recovering from Tommy John's surgery the Nats drafted the most exciting pitch prospect in decades in Stephen Strasburg, and before Zimmermann could return in 2010 Strasburg had his electrifying debut. Nats fans had forgotten about Jordan Zimmermann. He was no longer thought of as a top of the rotation pitcher, and Stephen Strasburg was the darling of baseball. Everywhere that Strasburg went large crowds showed up to watch him while Jordan Zimmermann was struggling through a rehab assignment, and then late in 2010 Strasburg went down with a sudden and violent tear of his UCL, and Nats fans were robbed of their brief glimpse of Zimmermann and Strasburg in the rotation together.
Without Stephen Strasburg in the rotation for most of the 2011 season Jordan Zimmermann stepped back into the spotlight pitching to a 3.18 ERA over 161 1/3 innings pitched. He was by far the best pitcher on the Nationals that season, but in order to save his elbow for future seasons the Nationals shut him down. During the 2012 off-season the Nationals went out and traded for Gio Gonzalez and with Strasburg now back in the rotation full time Jordan Zimmermann was nothing more than a number three starter, and his position in the Nationals rotation clouded people's judgement of him. No longer was he viewed as a potential Ace or even a top of the rotation starter. He was simply a nice number three. Then he went out and pitched to a 2.94 ERA over 195 innings and was one of the best pitchers in baseball for most of the season. There were still flaws in his game however.
Many people wanted to blame his trouble with the win/loss record on poor run support or the bullpen blowing games for him. There were jokes about why the Nationals hated Jordan Zimmermann, but there was a bigger problem. Jordan Zimmermann is a strike thrower. He abhors walks, and hates pitches out of the strike zone even more. On his career Jordan Zimmermann has a walk rate of a measly 2.06 per nine innings. The trouble with this was that Jordan Zimmermann had trouble finishing batters. For his career batters have OPS'd .534 against Zimmermann when he has two strikes on them and .547 when he is ahead in the count. That may not sound like a lot but both numbers are worse than what a MLB average pitcher would allow by .020-.030 points, and with Zimmermann being better than a league average pitcher then better than league average numbers should be expected. The other issue with Jordan Zimmermann was the more he was seen the worse he did. The first time through the order opponents had an OPS against him of .660 and the second time .662, but the third time it jumped to .748, and in the seventh inning for his career Jordan Zimmermann has a .969 OPS against. Trouble finishing was the issue Jordan Zimmermann had the most trouble dealing with.
Part of this was because Zimmermann was essentially a two pitch pitcher. He was listed as having a fastball, curve, and slider, but the curve and slider had similar enough breaks it was hard to differentiate the two, and with them both being breaking balls their usefulness was about the same and could be thrown in the same counts. Zimmermann also enjoyed throwing both for strikes and at times was prone to hanging one when well ahead in the count instead of bouncing it in the dirt to get swings and misses. Watching Jordan Zimmermann this season that has been one of the biggest differences. Go back to his complete game against the Reds. He may have only had four strikeouts, but only seven batters got deep enough into the count to have two strikes against them. Finishing off four of seven batters with strikeouts is not a bad ratio.
The more effective use of the breaking stuff ahead in the count is only one part of the change in Jordan Zimmermann as a pitcher. He is now throwing his change-up 3.5% of the time. That may not sound like much, but in 2012 he only threw it 2.1% of the time. He is also using the curve ball much more as well as more effectively throwing it 2/3 as much as his slider whereas in 2012 he threw it half as much as his slider. Zimmermann is still primarily a fastball pitcher and can locate his fastball to all four quadrants of the strike zone. So far in 2013 392 of Jordan Zimmermann's 575 pitches have been fastballs. Zimmermann with his bulldog mentality is not afraid of batters making contact early in the count, works ahead, and if he gets a batter to two strikes he has finished them off. Now with two strikes batters are ineffective against Zimmermann OPSing a close to nothing .203, and Zimmermann has struck out 27 of the 66 batters he has gotten to two strikes.
Zimmermann has always been known as a control pitcher, but this season his control numbers are off the chart. Only two batters have made it to a 3-0 count against them and he has issued only one four pitch walk. On the other hand he has taken 36 batters to an 0-2 count and struck out eight of them on three pitches. Jordan Zimmermann has thrown 55% first pitch strikes and because of his reputation as a strike thrower more batters than ever are swinging with a rise from a career average swing rate of 49% up to 51%, and 665 of all pitches Jordan Zimmermann has thrown register as strikes.
2013 is the season that Jordan Zimmermann is finally getting his due. His great pitching is translating into the win/loss record, and he has made adjustments to how he pitches to help him finish off batters and games. Jordan Zimmermann may have two complete games and averaging 7.3 innings a start, but he is the model of pitch efficiency averaging a low stress 96 pitches an outing. Compare that to his higher profile rotation mates Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez who are averaging 103 and 98 pitches per outing and 6.2 and 5.3 innings. While those two are searching for their command Jordan Zimmermann is demonstrating why it is good to have starting pitching depth, leading the Nationals rotation, and helping the team tread water while the rest of the top of the rotation and offense rounds into form. And all of that sounds a lot like what an Ace is supposed to do. If Jordan Zimmermann keeps this up not only will he step out of the shadow of Strasburg and Gio he may start to over shadow them.