By: Will Burchfield
It’s been over a year now. Well over, in fact.
And Jordan Zimmermann still looks lost.
He was bombed yet again on Wednesday night, yielding seven runs over five innings in a 10-2 defeat to the Yankees. It was the third straight start in which he surrendered seven earned runs.
“I’m scuffling right now, I’m scuffling bad,” said Zimmermann, always willing to look himself in the eye. “The last three outings I did absolutely nothing to help this team win.”
The scuffling wouldn’t be a huge concern if it were truly limited to that time frame. But Zimmermann’s skid marks can be traced all the way back to June of 2016, a trail of a pitcher gone awry.
Since June 8 of last season, a span of 35 outings, Zimmermann has a 6.69 ERA and a 1.58 WHIP. It was the injuries that dogged him at first, most notably the neck. Then it was the mechanics, most notably the slider grip. Now it’s the fastball velocity.
While Zimmermann swears he feels fine, the Tigers have to be pondering a most unpalatable truth: This could be what’s left of the 31-year-old righty, who’s still owed about $78 million through the 2020 season. This could be Zimmermann’s new reality.
“I’d like to think it’s still in there because we’ve seen it, we’ve seen flashes of it,” said Brad Ausmus, who’s often said the same thing of Anibal Sanchez and has rarely sounded convinced. “But like we were talking about Boyd and Norris being young guys and at some point they have to deliver, the same applies to Jordan Zimmermann. He had a track record coming in, but at some point we have to see something similar to the old Jordan Zimmermann.”
The Tigers got a glimpse of it in Zimmermann’s first two months with the team. They know what it looks like. Aggressive. Hard-nosed. Lots of soft contact and loads of innings. A horse with a bulldog’s mentality.
The mindset remains — “I never think Zimm’s afraid of the hitters,” said Ausmus — but the arm has seemingly decayed.
Zimmermann’s three best seasons with the Nationals came in 2012, 2013 and 2014. He was an All-Star and a Cy-Young candidate in the latter two years. His average fastball velocity in that span was 94.61 mph.
It’s down to 92.9 mph this year. On Wednesday night, it was as low as 89 mph and never exceeded 92. Ausmus said that made him “curious if the neck acted up,” but Zimmermann assured reporters he felt fine.
Beyond that, he didn’t have a whole lot of answers.
“I wish I understood why,” he said of the drop in velocity.
Control has become an issue for Zimmermann, too. Once a pitcher who lived in the strike zone, he has slowly strayed beyond it. His league-best rate of 1.3 B/9 in 2014 has doubled to 2.6 BB/9 in 2017.
“It’s just the command right now. I have no clue where it went or what the problem is,” he said. “I haven’t really had it this year. The slider was there for two months and now the fastball’s left me, too. It just feels like I’m putting a lot of effort into every single pitch to make that pitch and it’s just not coming out free and easy right now.”
“I’m gonna go back to the drawing board and keep searching. That’s all you can do. I’m hoping it’s just one little mechanical thing that maybe clicks and I get back on track,” he added.
Ausmus would like to think Zimmermann can unlock his former self. Zimmermann is hopeful he can find the key. The tone is as disconcerting as the image. Certainty has withered into something far less firm.
Zimmermann acknowledged on Wednesday night that his recent struggles have affected his psyche.
“Yeah, I think obviously when you go through something like this you’re not gonna be as confident,” he said, which is quite the admission for a nine-year vet with a long track record of success.
Nearly all of that success came with the Nationals. Asked how confident he is that he can still be that pitcher, the pitcher who very much earned the five-year, $110 million contract the Tigers gave him in 2015, Zimmermann gave a soft, honest reply.
“I’m fairly confident,” he said. “It’s just tough that my velocity’s down the way it is. In spring training I was 93, 94. The ball was coming out good, everything was sharp. And now all of a sudden I’m 89 to 92? And I feel fine so that’s not the issue. It’s just a matter of working out the mechanics.”
It’s hard to miss the connection between Zimmermann’s velocity and his results. He’s lost a good two miles per hour on his fastball since coming to the Tigers and his numbers — most notably his home-run rate — have swelled like a balloon.
“It certainly doesn’t help,” said Ausmus, “but he’s pitched anywhere from 90 to 94 this year. That’s certainly well within the range of being able to succeed at the major league level, especially with his experience.”
“Obviously, yeah. If you give me 92 to 94, I can get away with some of the mistakes. Now, 89 to 92, you’re not gonna get away with those mistakes as much as you did,” he said.
But Zimmermann has lived in that that desired velocity range for much of the past year, if on the lower end of the spectrum, and the results have been downright ugly. When it’s not the velocity, it’s the mechanics. When it’s not the mechanics, it’s the health. Sometimes it’s all three.
Zimmermann doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t lean on these explanations like crutches. If anything, he’s searching for answers, trying to isolate problems so he can fix them. There just seem to be so many these days, too many to handle all at once. It’s as if he’s juggling and pitching at the same time.
There have been some bright spots mixed in since last June, even some patches of sustained success. But there has been far more bad than good, and the former has been more extreme than the latter. What was once the exception for Zimmermann is slowly and alarmingly becoming the rule.
In May, Brad Ausmus was asked about Zimmermann’s slow start to the season.
“What’s it been, seven starts? I don’t know if it’s a trend yet,” he said, confident his pitcher would turn things around.
It’s been 25 starts now, 34 since last June. The story’s the same, the ending much more in doubt.