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Jordan Zimmermann: Unfairly Underrated?

Before there was Stephen Strasburg, there was Jordan Zimmermann. After missing part of 2009 and nearly all of 2010 with Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann was placed under a strict innings limit for his age-25 season in 2011. Despite performing well, he was still shut down after he crossed the 160 inning threshold, and was not seen again after August 28.

For Nationals fans hoping that GM Mike Rizzo made the right call in shelving Strasburg at a similar point in his recovery this year – it was of course less of a lightning rod for Zimmermann, since he’s not Strasburg and the 2011 Nationals weren’t nearly as competitive as the 2012 version – the tremendous success of Zimmermann in his first year with the reins off has to be seen as a cause for great optimism.

Zimmermann operated in 2012 without any innings constraints and came just short of hitting 200 frames, while finishing seventh in the NL in ERA with a very good mark of 2.94. That number wasn’t completely backed up by FIP, given that his 3.51 was more than half a run higher than his ERA, but even by that metric he was still a top-15 pitcher in the league.

Though Zimmermann makes his money by throwing a quality fastball that averages nearly 94 miles per hour more than 60% of the time, he hasn’t shown that he’s going to be the kind of pitcher who blows people away, compiling a fine-but-hardly-elite 7.44 K/9 mark in nearly 500 innings with the Nationals.

In fact, that seems to be somewhat of a conscious decision on his part, as told to David Laurila here in June:

On pitching to contact: “Before I had Tommy John, I was striking a lot of guys out. I would throw a lot of pitches. Once I came back from it, I told myself, ‘Let’s pitch to contact and let’s not strike as many guys out.’ That way I can stay in the game longer.

Zimmermann has been more than able to compensate with outstanding control, walking only 74 in 357 innings over the last two seasons, giving him a K/BB mark that is seventh in the NL over that span. That would be impressive for just about any pitcher, but it’s especially so here given that control is usually the last thing that comes back for a pitcher after Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann is a rarity in that sense, because his walk rate has actually been better after the zipper than it was before. In addition, any concerns about durability were allayed by his impressive run of 23 consecutive starts to begin the season in which he threw at least six innings; he was especially effective in July, when he was named the NL Pitcher of the Month.

There’s no shortage of star power in the Washington rotation, starting of course with Strasburg, but also with Gio Gonzalez, who had a fantastic season of his own by finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting. The Nationals further added to their depth this winter by adding veteran and former stud Dan Haren, looking to rebuild his reputation on a one-year deal.

With names like that, it’s probably not a surprise that Zimmerman seems to get lost in the shuffle sometimes, but that’s unfair to him; the 26-year-old righty has emerged in his own right as one of the better young pitchers in baseball. Heading into 2013, he’ll be another year away from the surgery  and on a team that figures to be among the best in the game. It’s a good time to be Jordan Zimmermann.