Pitcher Spotlight: Jordan Zimmermann’s Adaptation

Note: Scott Strandberg also wrote about Jordan Zimmermann yesterday and you should read that piece too.

Conversations about Jordan Zimmermann rarely present the Detroit Tigers starter in a good light. Maybe his horrid contract is referenced or how his fastball registered a -27.3 pVal in 2017 (yes, it was that bad) or maybe how far he’s fallen since his days with Nationals. Regardless of the focus, if you’re talking Zimermmann, it’s often sprinkled with disappointment.

We’re going to have a different conversation today. No, it’s not that Zimmermann is definitively a dependable arm for the rest of the year, that would be foolish. You know the drill with these articles, I have seen something interesting and I want to make the case that maybe, just maybe, a pitcher will be better than expected in the next month or two.

Let’s establish our baseline. Here’s what Jordan Zimmermann has done over his last two seasons leading up to 2018:

Jordan Zimmermann 2016 & 2017
Season ERA WHIP K% BB% FB% SL% CB%
2016 4.87 1.37 14.7% 5.8% 52.8% 30.9% 13.3%
2017 6.08 1.55 14.5% 6.2% 54.3% 24.3% 15.6%

Atrocious. Nightmarish. Ghastly. Zimmermann. These are all synonymous and we had no reason to expect any different in 2018. But now let’s show this season’s numbers paired with his wretched 2016 and 2017 numbers. (Please excuse how unnecessary the first table was. I like a little drama in my articles and I can’t help myself.)

Jordan Zimmermann Last Three Seasons
Season ERA WHIP K% BB% FB% SL% CB%
2016 4.87 1.37 14.7% 5.8% 52.8% 30.9% 13.3%
2017 6.08 1.55 14.5% 6.2% 54.3% 24.3% 15.6%
2018 3.51 1.05 24.8% 4.4% 45.4% 34.9% 15.1%

Not a dramatic shift, but clearly improved from previous iterations as you may be seeing where this article is headed. Let’s dive even deeper as Zimmermann has been a wildly different pitcher over his last six starts, as we start to enter the meat of this piece:

Jordan Zimmermann 2018 Season Split
Date Range ERA WHIP K% BB% FB% SL% CB%
First 5 Starts 7.91 1.71 24.4% 5.6% 48.5% 32.8% 14.7%
Last 6 Starts 1.22 0.70 25.0% 3.7% 43.5% 36.3% 15.3%

There was a DL stint in the middle of those latter starts and it did little to get Zimmermann off his hot streak. Something is up.

You might be surprised to know that Zimmermann has what I call a Money Pitch in his slider (40%+ O-Swing, 40%+ Zone Rate, 15%+ Whiff Rate). It’s actually the pitch that has kept him in the major leagues across his career, failing to register a negative pVal in his last eight seasons.

“Throw it more often!”

That’s what we normally say when a pitcher so apparently needs help and while showcasing a stellar secondary pitch under 30% of the time. It’s possible Jordan Zimmermann heard our cries in 2018, raising its usage from a 22.5% career mark to a whopping 35.1% clip in 2018, easily a career-high rate.

Here’s a great example of Zimmermann executing this philosophy. During his excellent outing Friday night, Zim took down Delino DeShields Jr. with three sliders:

It’s a tempting pitch, often landing right outside of the zone after looking like a strike 95% of the way toward the plate, saving a touch of late bite at the end to sneak under bats.

But there’s more to Zimmermann’s success than throwing his best pitch more often. We’re going on a journey in this piece. We started at Zimmermann’s career prior to 2018, now we’ve separated his season into two halves. What do we see if we look at each of his last six games?

Jordan Zimmermann Last Six Games
Date IP ERs Hs BBs Ks FA% SL% CU%
7/6/2018 8.0 1 4 0 11 40.6% 33.3% 24.0%
7/1/2018 7.0 1 5 0 6 39.2% 36.1% 23.7%
6/25/2018 5.0 0 4 1 3 38.0% 50.6% 7.6%
6/16/2018 5.0 3 4 0 4 48.7% 44.6% 6.8%
5/5/2018 5.0 0 2 3 5 48.2% 35.3% 9.4%
4/30/2018 7.0 0 2 1 5 47.3% 21.5% 16.1%

Stop throwing your bad pitch!”

That’s the other half of the above statement that we hear about and once again, Zimmermann could be listening. But instead of going all out with his slide piece, recently Zimmermann has focused on using another breaking ball in tandem, a curveball.

In his last three starts, Zimmermann has collectively thrown heaters – an atrocity of an offering and catalyst for his failures – under 40% of the time, while bumping up his usage in breaking balls in a big way, using his curveball suddenly over 23% of the time.

How did that Curveball perform? First a peek at its movement and locations:

Down and consistently surprising Rangers hitters. He threw 23 across the night, inducing 5 whiffs, 8 called strikes, and 4 foul balls, good for 17/23 curveballs that earned strikes without a ball in play. That’s phenomenal, elite even. His command and confidence in the pitch alongside his slider while reducing heaters were easily the impetus behind an incredible 8.0 IP, 11 strikeout performance.

Conclusion

It makes sense. Too much sense, right? Zimmermann has a terrible fastball, and has reduced its usage from 55% in previous seasons to as low as under 40% in recent games. Sliders and Curveballs are wildly effective and he’s increased their spotlight tremendously, outweighing his heater usage. And the result is one of the best runs of his career, capped off by a career evening against the Rangers.

It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that Jordan Zimmermann, a poster child for disappointment and irrelevancy, is suddenly primed for a breakout season. I wouldn’t recommend a pickup in leagues save for deep 12-teamers and beyond as there is too much risk involved (not to mention his recent string of weak opponents), though I’m sure you’re like me and can’t help but find yourself a little excited at the prospect. There’s a chance this sticks and that alone may make him worth the flier.



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Nick Pollack is the founder of PitcherList.com and has written for Washington Post, Fantasy Pros, and CBS Sports. He can be found making an excessive amount of GIFs on twitter at @PitcherList.

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thanks for post