Thursday, November 13, 2014

Zimmermann's Future

Jordan Zimmermann was the ace of the Nationals impressive 2014 starting rotation. He set a career low in ERA at 2.66, a career high in strike outs with 182, and pitched one memorable no hitter on the last day of the regular season. With the MLB hot stove season in full swing and trade rumors swirling, let’s take a closer look at Zimmermann’s 2014 season.

When a batter stepped in to face Jordan this past season, there wasn’t much doubt about how the at bat was going to go. You were likely to see a strike on the first pitch. Zimmermann set (another) career high with a first pitch strike rate of 70.6%. This meant you were starting in a hole early as hitters tend to perform worse when faced with a pitcher friendly count. That first pitch was also likely to be fastball. Zimmermann threw 70.3% fastballs, a nearly 7 percentage point increase over his career average of just shy of 64%. Unlike fellow teammate Stephen Strasburg, Zimmermann’s velocity is the picture of consistency, sitting at 93 MPH dating all the way back to his MLB debut. While attacking the strike zone, Zimmermann would throw in the occasional slider (18.5% usage rate) and the rare curveball (8.0%) or the even rarer change-up (3.2%). Fangraphs calculates the value of a pitcher’s pitch each season. It’s basically a measure of how successful that pitch has been. Zimmermann’s fastball was rated at 14.6 (zero in this case being average), good enough for 6th in the league and ahead of some big name fastball pitchers like newcomer Garret Richards, lefty Chris Sale, or current free agent Max Scherzer. His slider rated even better compared to the league with its 12.3 value coming in 4th for the year. Zimmermann pounded the zone in 2014 with fastballs and dared hitters to do something about it. More often than not, they just headed back to the dugout.

Zimmermann also excelled when facing the opposing pitcher. I think this is one area that can get overlooked at times, but contributes to the better stats pitchers put while in the NL. Excelling against the pitcher means basically getting 1-3 free outs per game. And did Zimmermann ever excel this year. Opposing pitchers hit a measly .096, struck out in nearly 50% of their at bats, and walked only once. Zimmermann has always done well facing the pitchers in the NL, but he topped almost all his career numbers this year. Interesting fact, though, he has given up 8 extra base hits to pitchers (all doubles), but 5 in 2014 alone. Go figure.

By the most basic measure, Zimmermann’s results matched up to his performance. Taking a look at FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching) can tell you a lot about how a pitcher performed. It’s generally accepted that pitchers have little control over the ball once it gets hit. Pitcher’s obviously have control over strikeouts and walks, but they wield very little influence over the type of contact they can give up (outside of home runs to some extent). FIP strips out all those hits and replaces it with the MLB average for balls in play. If a pitcher’s FIP is better than his ERA (better meaning lower), he is pitching into some tough luck and is likely to see his ERA regress towards his FIP. The reverse holds true, where someone with a low ERA but high FIP is probably giving up some well hit balls right at his teammates. For his career, Zimmermann’s ERA and FIP have been almost identical and 2014 was no different with his FIP coming .02 points lower than his ERA at 2.68.

Given all that, it’s tempting to sharpie Zimmermann in for more of the same in 2015, but there are some red flags in his peripheral stats. The biggest flag is Zimmermann’s career low HR/9 innings rate of 0.59. While pitchers have some ability to limit home runs, HR/9 tends to be pretty stable. In fact, Zimmermann has sat right around the MLB average of 0.8 for most of his career. Not giving up homeruns is obviously a really effective way to keep ERA down. I would expect Zimmermann to give up a few more long balls in 2015. Additionally, Zimmermann’s strike out rate of 22% in 2014 is 3 percentage points higher than any other time in his career and his walk rate was a miniscule 3.6%. Zimmermann got that big boost in strike outs by enticing hitters to swing and miss more often in 2014. Batters swung and missed 10.3% of the time versus Zimmermann (say it with me: a career best). He was able to do this by getting batters to swing at pitches outside of the zone at a career best rate of 37%. While you can attribute some of these achievements to real, sustainable improvement, those are some tough rates to match year in and year out across the board. A regression back closer to career norms in any one of those stats could have a big, negative impact on Zimmermann.
Perhaps the biggest concern I have for Zimmermann long term is his ever increasing dependence on his fastball and slider. While, yes, he was very successful with those two pitches, it is so rare for a starting pitcher to survive with only two pitches. Not only do you become predictable, but your ability to get opposite handed hitters (in Zimmermann’s case lefties) out is ever more challenging. Sliders break into opposite handed hitters and are much easier to hit than a 12-6 curveball that drops down or a change-up that will break away from lefties. Zimmermann already has a decently sized platoon split. If he loses a few ticks on his fastball, he won’t have other pitches to fall back on.

Looking into the crystal ball

The Nationals face a very difficult question with Jordan Zimmermann. He has one year left on his contract and has made it known that he will seek a max deal. He is probably looking to what Max Scherzer gets this off season as a basis for his own deal. That will mean lots of dollars and, most importantly, lots of years. I feel confident in saying 2014 was a career year for Zimmermann. Heck, it’s a career year for anyone not named Kershaw. And while we are likely to see some regression in Zimmermann’s numbers, he is still going to be one of the top pitchers in baseball in 2015. But pitchers are very hard to rely on. They have a high risk of injury, and Zimmermann himself has already gone through Tommy John surgery. They lose a little giddy up on their fastball, and their performance can fall off the cliff (see: Justin Verlander). Committing to any pitcher for the length of time that Zimmermann is demanding is full of risks. The Nationals farm system, though not as impressive as it used to be, still has a stable of young arms (Jordan, Cole, Giolito) who could pick up the slack if Zimmermann were to be traded. If the Nationals can’t/won’t resign Zimmermann, might as well get something for him right? Don’t set your hopes too high, however. For a team looking to pick up Zimmermann via trade, they will know they only get him for one year. Combine that with the new trend of stockpiling and protecting young talent means Nationals fans are sure to be disappointed with the haul Zimmermann would bring back. I’m sure Mike Rizzo is spending this offseason listening to calls on Jordan. He should listen. And if the deal turns out to be a good value, he should jump on it and use the cash savings to lock up Ian Desmond and Doug Fister. If Rizzo can’t work out a deal, it means the Nationals need to be all in for 2015 and console themselves in the fact they will be getting an extra draft pack when Zimmermann rejects their qualifying offer in 2015.

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