Not About Jordan Zimmermann & Innings Limits

On Sunday, Jordan Zimmermann continued his excellent season with six and a third shutout innings at home against the Rockies. He struck out six, walked none, and it was the 17th time in his 18 starts that he walked fewer than two batters. Though he doesn’t have an above-average whiff rate or strikeout rate, his excellent control has proven that he should remain a good major league starter for the forseeable future.

Or, at least for another seven starts or so this year. If Bill Ladson’s reporting is correct, the team will be limiting the 25-year-old right-hander to 160 innings this year. Though the pitcher hasn’t mentioned any health issues, the Nationals would like to be cautious and will make Zimmermann the fifth starter so they can skip the occasional start and limit the innings. After all, he’s still coming off Tommy John surgery and hasn’t ever pitched more than 134 innings combined in one calendar year.

But, as you might have noticed from the titular hint, this is not a post about Jordan Zimmermann and innings limits. Instead, it’s about some comments that Nationals manager Davey Johnson made about the plan to limit the innings.

Here are the semi-controversial words from this MLB.com piece:

The Nationals placed a 160-inning limit on the right-hander, and pitching coach Steve McCatty drew up a plan to get Zimmermann to that mark once the roster expands in September. “I’ve heard the plan, and I’m not that comfortable with it,” Johnson told MLB.com. “We’ll have a healthy break to discuss that. I’m not quite set on how that will go down.” … “He’s obviously pitched a lot better than a fifth starter, so if we’re trying to win … you can figure it out,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if this is a medical decision and he needs extra rest. There’s all kinds of things to talk about, and [the decision] is probably being made above me by smart doctors, but I’m looking at it from a baseball standpoint.”

The pitching coach is tasked with keeping his pitchers happy, healthy and effective. The field manager is tasked with winning games. The general manager is tasked with winning pennants year-in and year-out. In this particular case, it seems that their mandates have found conflict. We don’t know everything about the best practices of developing a young pitcher. But what we do know about those best practices doesn’t include doubling a Tommy John surgery survivor’s career high in innings totals two years after the surgery. And yet, if you’re trying to win games, there’s no way you want to skip your best pitcher, ever.

Flip over to the standings page and the argument might be over for many. The Nationals are at .500 and have allowed two more runs than they’ve scored. They’re fourth in a division with two heavyweights at the top. It’s probably not happening for them this year, eight games out of the wild card hunt with six teams ahead of them. Next year, when Stephen Strasburg returns and Derek Norris and Bryce Harper are another year closer to the bigs, they might be able to put something together. This year? They should probably protect the health of their long-term assets.

And yet there’s no reason to begrudge the manager his skepticism about the limits. If he’s supposed to know his players on an every-day basis and win games from the dugout, he’s supposed to look at his healthy ace and want him on the mound as much as possible. And the pitching coach is supposed to find a way to keep his pitchers healthy. And the general manager is supposed to groom a sustainable contender of a roster. Everyone has their roles.

A recent interview of Theo Epstein and Terry Francona by Mike Barnicle on Grantland produced the excellent paragraph below. Perhaps it will soothe some of the anger of the eager Nationals fan as they bemoan the missed starts that Zimmermann could have won.

“Communication is different in the clubhouse than it is in a boardroom. The heartbeat that exists in the clubhouse … you don’t find that same type of heartbeat in the front office. There is a cloak of intensity in the clubhouse that doesn’t exist here,” the general manager points out. “There is a little more objectivity here in this office. We see the game at 10,000 feet. Tito sees it 50 feet away. Tito is looking at tonight’s game and those of us in baseball ops, a lot of the time, are looking at the next five years.



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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.


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Zimmerman is 2 years removed from Tommy John Surgery

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