Jordan Zimmermann is about as flashy as a pair of BluBlocker sunglasses.1 If not for his regular appearances starting for the Nationals every fifth day, you’d be hard pressed to know he was there at all. He doesn’t bring with him the ongoing drama of Stephen Strasburg and whether he is or isn’t an ace or should or shouldn’t lead the staff. He doesn’t put up gaudy statistics like Kershaw or have the big strikeout rate that excites all the numbers geeks like me. He just shows up, puts in work, and gives his team a chance to win every fifth day.
He’s so steady he’s delightfully boring.
If there’s a way to quietly win 19 games in a season, Zimmermann accomplished the feat in 2013 by posting a 19-9 record that largely went unnoticed. While wins are a poor indicator of pitching performance, big numbers still draw oohs and aahs from the masses like muscles on a beach, but despite tying Adam Wainwright for the NL lead (second in the Majors behind Max Scherzer’s 21), Zimmermann finished seventh in the NL Cy Young voting behind a closer in Craig Kimbrel and Matt Harvey, a guy whose last game was on August 24 because he tore his ulnar collateral ligament.2 How did industry experts view Zimmermann coming into the season? Well, if this ESPN prediction column is any indication, he had less of a chance of winning the Cy in 2014 than Julio Teheran or Tim Lincecum. Hey, I get it, everybody loves “The Freak,” but the 5’11” whirling dervish is a long ways removed from the pitcher who dominated the NL from 2008-11. Baseball Prospectus predicted Zimmermann would finish 10th, behind Nats teammates Strasburg and Doug Fister.
How’s that for respect?
This year Zimmermann won’t win out against Kershaw, even if he produces another month like he had in June, but Zimmermann should finish top five. What keeps him out of the discussion for one of the top three spots is that he just hasn’t thrown enough innings. He’s thrown just six more innings than Kershaw in five additional starts, and he’s averaged just 89 pitches per start, which continues a trend of low 90s pitch counts dating back to 2011. In Zimmerman’s 26 starts in 2014, he’s topped 100 pitches just seven times, gone 95+ an additional four, reached 90+ an additional six. Some of that is efficiency of course: he had one start against St. Louis where he threw 76 pitches across 8 innings of work, but when you average a shade over six innings a start, it’s difficult to be considered elite.
Consistency Is Key
The beauty of Zimmermann is that it’s almost a given in what you’re going to receive from the righty on a nightly basis. Home or away, month in and month out, he’s essentially the same pitcher. Take a look at these home and away splits for his career:
Zimmermann Home/Away Splits
Of course, I could find other statistics such as K/9, higher on the road, or HR/9, lower at home, that would attempt to prove the contrary opinion, but the point is that here’s a guy who delivers mid 90s fastballs with the same regularity and results on the road as he does at home, against right handers or left handers.
How about those same numbers broken out by month:
Zimmermann Monthly Splits
Short of Zimmermann really loving to pitch in June, he allows base runners at essentially the same rate and his wOBA holds steady around the average of .320. Over the last four years, the NL average FIP for starters has been between 3.82 and 3.97 and (except for June of course) Zimmermann never strays too far from that range.
For his career, look at the results from his three primary pitches against lefties and righties:
|Pitch||Left BAA||Right BAA||Left Whiff||Right Whiff||Left Strike||Right Strike|
Zimmermann Career Pitch Results
Other than a desire to throw his slider more to righties and his curveball more to lefties (which from the results above, makes a lot of sense) he isn’t extreme in his results and outcomes to either side of the plate. If we’re to discuss differences, we could look to how he approaches either side, working the outer third to righties with a tendency to attack low and away, while attacking away from the belt up to lefties, but nobody said he pitched exactly the same—just that he achieved similar results.
Keeping the discussion going with the amazing consistency of J-Zimm, take a look at few statistics over the years:
Zimmermann Seasonal Statistics
If there’s a case to be made for a career year, 2012 would be the one to choose, but he’s about as steady as they come. To look at his seasons in the context of his contemporaries in terms of fWAR, since 2011 the average season delivered by a qualified starter is 2.7 with the median coming in at precisely 2.5. Zimmermann is well above those figures, but all of his seasons save the current one fall within the middle 50% that ranges from 1.5 to 3.5. In contrast, neither Kershaw nor Felix Hernandez has one single season that doesn’t exceed that range, which isn’t arguing that Zimmermann doesn’t match up with the elite but there’s the game’s greats and then there’s the games really, consistently goods.
Of the other pitchers who existed in that world of pretty good with at least three or four seasons either between or just outside that middle 50, Lance Lynn would be a solid comparable as he’s recorded seasons between 2.8 and 3.4 with Rick Porcello providing another reasonable comparison. This is the company Zimmermann keeps, with a floor of Kyle Lohse at his best and a ceiling of Zack Greinke (non-2009 variety that is) when things go right. That’s on a per season basis, year after year after year.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Zimmermann is so consistent that it took until his fifth month of the season before he had a game where he walked more than two batters, and he’s walked precisely two batters just five times this season. In fact, prior to the three walk game against Arizona on August 18, Zimmermann had gone 34 straight starts with two or fewer walks allowed, which was the longest active streak in baseball at the time. He’s allowed just 24 walks, good for fifth in the Majors for qualified starters, and his 1.35 BB/9 is sixth in the Majors.
Those games where he just loses his mojo and walks the bases loaded? They’re not happening with this guy. One of the few times I can recall where Zimmermann actually lost his composure on the mound happened against the Mets in mid-August. After a few Nats errors allowed two Mets runners in the seventh, Zimmermann plunked Juan Lagares, forcing Matt Williams to bring in Drew Storen.
Maybe I’m the only one. Maybe it’s just me that over the years hasn’t fully appreciated the work Zimmermann has put in, but I don’t think so. In many ways, he’s the forgotten man on the Nats staff, but for those of us who have watched this team this year, along with Fister, Zimmermann has been the most consistent of the Nats starters.
Matt Williams gets paid to decide who will start a Game 1 when the postseason comes around, but he might want to make Zimmermann the guy.
Don’t mess with Zimmermann.
Hit a home run? Zimmermann’s revenge.
- For your sake, I’m going to end this before I compare Stephen Strasburg to a pair of Oliver Peoples and Tanner Roark to a pair of Maui Jims. Thank me later. ↩
- This isn’t an indictment on Harvey either or his finish in the voting. He was amazing in ’13 before his injury. Let me just say this unequivocally: Harvey does no wrong in my eyes and should be treated like gold. ↩