When the Detroit Tigers signed Jordan Zimmermann to a free agent contract prior to the 2016 season, fans and front office personnel alike looked at the right-hander as a rotation centerpiece for the next five years. A decorated career with the Washington Nationals produced two All-Star appearances and a no-hitter for Zimmermann.
The investment looked sound one month into the deal. Zimmermann was 5-0 with a 0.55 ERA in April of 2016 and appeared poised to make a run at the Cy Young Award that season. But health, or lack thereof to be more accurate, can derail even the best-laid plans.
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No one figured that Zimmermann’s April that year would represent his zenith.
A basketful of injuries the next two seasons frustrated Zimmermann and Tigers fans to no end. Neck and back problems made the five-year deal he signed in December of 2015 look like an ugly anchor for team flexibility going forward.
However, this season Zimmermann has started to resemble the All-Star the Tigers signed as a free agent. Two days after shutting out the Royals over five innings in May, Zimmermann once again landed on the disabled list with a shoulder impingement. This stint though proved to be a minor bump in the road. Since returning to the rotation, Zimmermann has been stellar.
While he has regained much of his previous form, the Tigers continue to monitor his innings, often taking him out of starts with plenty left in the tank. In his first two starts off the disabled list, Zimmermann threw no more than 79 pitches. You can understand the Tigers cautious stance. They are navigating him through a positive stretch of starts without rolling the dice by pushing the envelope. Zimmermann and his contract do little good sitting on the D.L. Beyond that, they need to win games and keep him healthy for the next two years.
In his four starts off the disabled list, Zimmermann has allowed only one walk in 25 innings while posting an ERA of 1.80.
The return of Zimmermann’s slider to its previous dominant form has been one of the reasons for the turnaround. He has recorded 20 strikeouts in his last three starts and 13 of them have come on the slider. Yet, a closer look reveals that a major uptick in the usage of his curveball has also fueled his success.
In his first eight starts of the year, Zimmermann averaged 10 curveballs per start (not counting the start in Cleveland in which he was forced to leave in the first inning after he was hit in the face with a line drive). In his last two starts, the right-hander has thrown 23 curveballs in each outing. Moreover, he has thrown the curveball for strikes 75% of the time over the last two outings. Zimmermann has allowed only 3 hits on a curveball this season, and it is the increased usage of the pitch and the curtailing of the fastball and changeup that have stood out.
Father Time may have something to do with this transition. In his All-Star years of 2013 and 2014, Zimmermann’s fastball reached 96 MPH. These days it hovers in the 92-93 MPH range. A decrease in velocity is a fact of life for every pitcher and Zimmermann is no different. At the height of his success, Zimmermann was 70% fastball in 2014 for the Nationals. That number has decreased to 45% this season. He has recognized that the fastball can’t blow people away anymore, so the secondary pitches have become the main event.
With two years remaining on his contract following this season, Zimmermann is still owed $25 million a year through 2020. To this point, injuries have kept the right hander from delivering adequate results based on his compensation, but he appears healthy and headed in the right direction.
As the Tigers transition into forming the nucleus of the club’s next contender, Zimmermann can provide key innings to bridge the gap between then and now.