By: Will Burchfield
No one, not even Tigers general manager Al Avila, is hiding from the fact that Jordan Zimmermann has become a black mark on the team’s payroll. The 31-year-old embodies a cautionary tale that many GMs know far too well.
“If you look at the history of long-term expensive contracts with older pitchers, not a lot of them have turned out very well. We have our own situation with Jordan Zimmermann, quite frankly,” Avila said last month.
Since he signed a five-year, $110 million contract with the Tigers prior to the 2016 season, Zimmermann has a 5.60 ERA. Last year he gave up the most earned runs in baseball. Barring a sudden and serious turnaround, the $74 million the Tigers owe him through 2020 is money down the drain.
They’re hoping new pitching coach Chris Bosio can salvage the investment.
Bosio, of course, worked his magic with the Cubs by turning Orioles castoff Jake Arrieta into one of the best pitchers in baseball. It’s the most impressive mark on his coaching resume. When the Tigers brought Bosio on board in November, many targeted Zimmermann as his next reclamation project.
But Zimmermann resists that comparison.
“I’m sure he’s going to help, but the only reason I’ve been pitching poorly is because I’ve been battling injuries for two years. I don’t think Jake Arrieta was injured during his time in Baltimore. Yeah, (Bosio) definitely helped him out, but it’s more me just staying healthy than needing big-time adjustments,” Zimmermann said last week prior to the start of the Tigers winter caravan.
In two seasons with the Tigers, Zimmermann has been at full strength for about two months. That was in April and May of 2016 when he was earning every penny of his big, new contract. But a groin injury derailed his momentum late in the spring and a neck injury sent him to the disabled list midway through the summer. Zimmermann hasn’t been the same since.
He pitched through discomfort in his neck and shoulder for much of the 2017 season, trying to be there for his team. But he altered his mechanics in the process, the same mechanics that he relied on as a two-time All-Star with the Nationals, and a physical problem metastasized into a mental one. The veteran started overthinking things.
“It’s been like that for pretty much two years now — wondering if my glove’s in the right spot, wondering if I’m flying open. Just little things that go through your head when you’re out there pitching that you don’t need because it’s just more distractions,” Zimmermann said.
His cluttered mind led to a slower delivery. Bosio immediately picked up on this when watching film of Zimmermann back in November and called the pitcher to let him know. Zimmermann suspected this was the case, but was surprised to learn the degree of his degeneration. Bosio said Zimmermann’s time to home plate had increased by a full second from his final season with the Nationals.
“The last couple years has been way slower than when I was out in D.C. Just have to speed it up a little bit, and hopefully that takes care of most of my mechanical issues,” Zimmermann said.
He expects to resolve this in spring training. He also plans to get a neck injection around the same time, which he hopes will conceal the attendant pain and keep him on the mound for the duration of the season. The goal, Zimmermann said, is to enter the year “with a clear mind.”
Aside from moving from the Nationals to the Tigers three years ago, this is the first time Zimmermann has experienced a new pitching coach. He’s eager to get cracking with Bosio, who ironically pointed out parallels between Zimmermann and Arrieta in his first interview session with local media.
“Everybody I’ve talked to that’s had him or worked with him, loved him,” Zimmermann said. “He knows his stuff.”
But this isn’t about reinventing the wheel. It’s not about cracking a code and releasing reservoirs of latent talent, as Bosio did with Arrieta. Zimmermann wants to redeem himself — “That’s the plan every year (coming off) a bad year,” he said — but it won’t take anything drastic.
“For me, like I’ve been preaching for the last year and a half, staying healthy is the name of the game,” he said. “If I’m healthy I know I can still go out there and be a top-end starter.