By Will Burchfield
It is easy to dismiss the early-season struggles of Justin Verlander. It is much harder to do so in the case of Jordan Zimmermann.
That’s a two-pronged predicament for the Detroit Tigers, who are counting on Zimmermann this season and through the duration of his five-year, fully-guaranteed $110 million contract that doesn’t expire until 2020. A present concern threatens to become a long-term problem.
Through seven starts this season, the 30-year-old Zimmermann ranks fifth to last in the majors in ERA (6.28), sixth to last in WHIP (1.66) and second to last in batting average against (.327). That’s out of 97 qualified players. He is one of only two pitchers in baseball with a H/9 rate above 11 and a K/9 rate below six (among those who have thrown at least 35 innings).
That his record stands at 3-2 is a flat-out miracle, and a reminder that wins are perhaps the worst way to judge a pitcher. But the mirage won’t last much longer.
It began to crumble, in fact, in Zimmermann’s most recent start, a Friday night throwaway in which he gave up 10 hits and five runs (four earned) in a 7-0 loss to the Los Angeles Angels. It was the fifth time in his past six starts that he allowed at least four earned runs and the third time that he surrendered double-digit hits.
“Ultimately,” said Brad Ausmus, “the numbers kind of look the same every game.”
Yes, Zimmermann is coming off an injury-plagued 2016 campaign during which he was dogged by neck, groin and shoulder issues. Yes, he’s still trying to recover his mechanics as a result. And yes, the season is young.
“What’s it been, seven starts? I don’t know if it’s a trend yet,” Brad Ausmus told reporters over the weekend.
But there are some trends taking hold, none more distinct and disconcerting than this: Zimmermann can’t throw as hard as he used to. And for him, velocity has always been closely tied to production.
|Avg. Fastball Velo||ERA||WHIP||H/9||
*Indicates All-Star selection
It’s easy to see that Zimmermann’s best years came when his velocity peaked. And it’s easy to see that his decline, if we can now it call it that, began when his velocity started to dip. Perhaps the Tigers should have read the writing on the wall in the 2015 offseason before making Zimmermann one of the highest-paid pitchers in baseball. But they failed to, and now they’re left to deal with the fallout.
The crutch for Zimmermann this season has been poor luck: seeing-eye singles, defensive miscues, etc. A pitcher can’t control what happens after the ball is put in play; all he can do is execute his pitch and hope for the best. For Zimmermann, the latter part of this equation has been a continual source of frustration.
That was evident on Friday night, when the Angels scored one run on a high chopper over the mound, another on a bloop double down the right field line and yet another on an outfield misplay by J.D. Martinez.
Said Ausmus, “Today, I think there was misfortune involved.”
Said Zimmermann, “I’m just having bad luck, I think. This is the best I’ve felt all year. And the last three or four starts, it’s been getting better and better and better.”
Zimmermann’s velocity has indeed increased of late, his fastball averaging 93.24 mph in May. And to the eye, at least, he has been smited by the baseball gods in 2017.
“It’s gotta change,” he said of his ill luck. “I feel good out there, the ball is finally coming out good. I hope it changes soon.”
Catcher Alex Avila believes it will.
“The past few starts, even though the line doesn’t look good, you know he’s definitely not pitching to where the results are…As long as he keeps getting better, there is going to be a point in the season where it evens out (and) everything will start clicking,” Avila said.
But Zimmermann’s underlying stats don’t necessarily support the theory of poor luck. Nor do they suggest that things will improve.
He is yielding hard contact on 42.3 percent of batted balls, the fourth-highest rate in the majors and by far the highest rate of his career. He is surrendering line drives on 27.1 percent of batted balls, the fifth-highest mark in the majors and another career high. Say what you want about cheap hits, but Zimmermann has been squared up more frequently this season than almost any pitcher in baseball.
If Zimmermann’s ghastly numbers were truly the product of bad luck, subpar defense and abnormal hit sequences, then his FIP, which normalizes those exact three variables, would be significantly lower than his ERA. Is it? Only by a hair: 6.06, the fourth-worst mark in the majors and far too similar to his ERA (6.28) to indicate a substantial correction is in order.
It is uncommon for a Major League pitcher to have such poor surface stats without a redeeming metric or two. There’s no way to boil down Zimmermann’s struggles this season beyond acknowledging that he’s been really bad. Sure, his BABIP (.328) is well above league average, but it can be explained away by all that hard contact.
The hope for Zimmermann is that as he continues to build arm strength and steady his mechanics, the results will improve. Between his track record and his mending body, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
“I can picture it,” said Avila. “As the season goes on, there’s going to be a stretch where he is solid.”
That may well be true, and the Tigers had better pray it proves to be. So much of the hope for this team was built on Zimmermann returning to form. The Tigers signed him in 2015 to be their No. 2, a rock right behind Verlander. Though that vision has all but vanished, Zimmerman’s still here. He has to help this team in the present — and he probably will.
As for 2018, 2019 and 2020, who knows? Zimmermann logged 810 innings with the Nationals in the three seasons prior to signing with the Tigers, the 12th most in baseball over that span. Some pitchers can handle that kind of usage. Zimmermann, judging by his first year in Detroit, isn’t one of them. The neck. The shoulder. The groin. And even if he puts those injuries behind him, his arm clearly doesn’t have the life it once did.
That’s a bitter pill to swallow for the Tigers, who already appear to be on the losing end of a five-year, $110 million investment. For the time being, they simply have to hope that Zimmermann’s staunch optimism bears fruit on the mound.
“I’ve been around long enough (to know) that you’ve got to stay positive in this game and know you’re good enough to be here and be up here and be able to make those pitches in those tight situations,” he said. “I just have to keep battling, keep grinding and it’s going to change.”