The Tigers have already checked quite a few of their offseason boxes as the Winter Meetings begin in Nashville. They acquired Francisco Rodriguez and Cameron Maybin in trades and signed Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey as free agents. The club has about $160 million committed for 2016, leaving them with $10-$20 million left to spend before they exceed their 2015 payroll allocations. But that’s hot stove talk. We talk about dollars and cents to evaluate the quality of a signing, as I did when the Tigers inked Zimmermann last week. But things get to be more fun when you go beyond “good contract/bad contract” and talk about the players as players. So let’s get to know Jordan Zimmermann, New Tigers Pitcher.
First, the absolute basics. Zimmermann is a right-handed starter who will turn 30 in May. He’s pitched in parts of seven seasons with the Nationals and has tallied 1094 major league innings. That spans 178 starts and he’s recorded an 86 ERA- and 88 FIP- in his career. In laymen’s terms, Zimmermann is a guy who typically tosses about 200 innings and comes in about 10-15% better than the league average pitcher. Essentially, he’s been a 3-4 WAR pitcher for most of his career.
Let’s compare him, in an overall sense, to all pitchers since 2009 with 300 innings pitched (only counting statistics as starters). That’s 225 starting pitchers. Of the group, he has the 28th best park-adjusted ERA, near guys like Scherzer, Cole, Bumgarner, and Kluber. He’s 37th using FIP, near guys like Cobb, Gray, and Latos. But that’s his career, and while we care a little bit about him in 2010, that was also a very long time ago. Let’s look only at 2012-2015, same parameters otherwise. Since 2012, he’s 17th in ERA- (82) near guys like Arrieta, Hamels, and Strasburg. He’s 32nd in FIP- (88).
In other words, by performance, Zimmermann has been somewhere between the 15th and 35th best starting pitcher in baseball during his career. I typically think of #1/aces as being top 15 starters, so that puts Zimmermann somewhere in the very good #3 to solid #2 range. He’ll get points for durability over the last five seasons, as some of the guys ahead of him have either burned out or are yet to show their ability to handle a heavy workload. It would be difficult to paint Zimmermann as any sort of ace, but he’s performed like a decidedly above average starter. I don’t really care about rankings, so that’s good enough for me.
Now that we have a sense of Zimmermann’s overall performance, let’s dive into what kind of pitcher he is. What do we know about the new Tiger?
He Throws Strikes
One of Zimmermann’s calling cards is his command of the zone. One thing to keep in mind is that all strikes are not created equally and being a strike-thrower isn’t universally good or bad. That said, PITCHf/x says he’s thrown 55% of his pitches inside the zone over his career. League average is about 48-50% depending on the year. He’s thrown about 67% first pitch strikes while the average pitcher typically sits around 60%. In other words, Zimmermann comes at you in the strike zone and does so early in counts.
This translates to a very low walk rate. He’s walked 4.9% of the batters he’s faced in his career while league average has been about 7-8% during that span. To give you an idea, if we say that a pitcher faces 25 batters per start, the difference between Zimmermann’s walk rate and the average pitcher amounts to 0.5 to 0.75 walks per game or maybe 16-24 walks per year. Roughly speaking, that’s 5-8 runs per year he doesn’t allow compared to an otherwise identical pitcher with a league average walk rate. That’s maybe 0.20 to 0.30 runs shaved off his RA9/ERA/FIP/whatever based on not walking guys. That’s a pretty cool trick.
He Might Be Good At Keeping The Ball In The Park
The tenants of good pitching are strikeouts, walks, and home runs. If you get strikeouts, don’t issue free passes, and don’t allow dingers, you’re going to be a very good pitcher. We already know Zimmermann is one of the best at avoiding walks, but since 2012 he has a 9.0% HR/FB rate. That’s not an incredible mark, but it’s 28th among starters with 300+ innings in that span and it’s helped him run a better than average HR/9 throughout his career.
However, home run rates are among the more sensitive stats when it comes to sample size. From 2011-2014, Zimmermann was very good at preventing home runs and home runs per fly ball, but in 2015, he gave up 1.07 HR/9 on a 10.9 HR/FB%. Those marks are just fine, but they are much worse than he was for most of his career.
If you take his last four seasons and shake up the order, you would think that Zimmermann is a home run-prevention guy who had one fluky year. But any time the most recent season is the worst, you are always a little more cautious. The odds are the Zimmermann is a little better at preventing home runs than his peers, but it’s such a tricky skill to have and maintain that I wouldn’t put a ton of stock in it because…
Zimmermann Throws Hard, But He Might Be Losing It
This is something you’ve probably read about a lot already so I’ll cut to it:
2011 was still post-Tommy John, so you can understand the build up was still underway. For the next three seasons, his average fourseam fastball was quite consistent, until it wasn’t. We’re talking about a one-year, full mile per hour drop in velocity. Zimmermann passed his physical, says he feels great, and didn’t even know his velocity was down that much in 2015.
You expect guys to lose heat as they age, but a steep drop like this in one season is troubling. Could this explain why it was easier for guys to hit home runs against him in 2015? If it is, and the velocity is a permanent loss, you’re less optimistic about how good Zimmermann can be for the Tigers.
On the other hand, we basically suck at predicting injuries and atypical declines, so it’s a like a flashing ‘don’t walk’ sign; you can probably cross the street without incident, but you know there’s some risk.
Different Strokes For Different Folks
Zimmermann is a three-pitch guy. He relies a lot on his fastball (~62% of his pitchers in 2015) and then brings in his slider and a curve to go along with it. You’ll see a changeup every once in a while, but it hasn’t been a major part of his arsenal. As noted, the fastball has good velocity with some sink. The slider is hard without a ton of movement and breaking ball is mostly a 12-6 type pitch.
Zimmermann seems to attack righties and lefties differently. He typically works up and away for lefties and down and away to righties. Here he is in 2015:
Also, as you would expect, he is slider happy versus righties and relies on the curve against lefties:
It’s actually a really simple philosophy. When he faces a RHH, he goes with a fastball up and a slider low and away. Against a lefty, fastball up and away, curveball low.
The upshot of having great command is that you can be both predictable and good at the same time.
Zimmermann is a good pitcher. He’s not an ace level starter like Greinke or Price, but he’s definitely in the upper-third of starting pitchers. Given that he’ll be with the Tigers from age 30-34, you’re not going to get his best years, but they should get enough good years to be happy enough with the deal. Of course, if he needs a second Tommy John early in the deal, that goes out the window.
Look for Zimmermann to work fast, be in and around the zone, and follow a pretty predictable method depending on he handedness of the batter. He’s a nice addition to the club, but keep in mind that $22 million doesn’t buy what it used to. Zimmermann, as you’ve seen here, is very capable, but he’s a non-elite starter entering his thirties. He’ll be fun to watch, but he doesn’t live up to the 2009-2015 Verlander-Scherzer-Price insanity we’ve been treated to over the last few years.