Before the start of the 2013 baseball season, the Washington Nationals and Jordan Zimmermann were at a crossroads. The Nationals would have liked to have extended him in the same manner they did Gio Gonzalez before his 21-win season. If Zimmermann had been paying attention to that and to the money that right-handed aces such as Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, Felix Hernandez, and Justin Verlander were commanding, then he was smart to turn aside the Nationals' advances to commit to a long-term deal.
It wasn't that Zimmermann didn't have leverage or wouldn't have commanded a high price tag. It is that he would have been paid like a No. 2 or 3 starter. He would have gotten somewhere in the same $60 million range that Gonzalez received, and not upwards of the $100 million deals that have recently been handed out to pitchers. Zimmermann decided to wait on an extension and was smart to do so.
Coming into the 2013 season, Zimmermann was one of the most underrated starting pitchers in baseball. His 2012 ERA of 2.94 was impressive and the seventh-best in the National League, but his 12-8 record kept the baseball community at large from noticing how good he was. This season, Zimmermann has tweaked how he pitches and not only has it resulted in a much better 9-3 record so far, but also a paltry 2.00 ERA, which is currently fourth-best in the NL.
The common misconception about Zimmermann's record is that it was due to run support. In 2012, the Nationals averaged 4.75 runs per game when Zimmermann was on the mound, and in 2013, it's 4.49. Not much of a difference there. It should be noted that the team was 21-11 in Zimmermann's starts in 2012, but he wasn't always the pitcher getting the decision. There is good reason for this. In 2012, Zimmermann pitched 195 2/3 innings over 32 starts, averaging just over six innings per start. In 2013, Zimmermann has averaged just over seven innings a start.
There were other minor issues that Zimmermann faced in 2012 as well, and they were a product of something that doesn't sound like a negative for a pitcher at all. Zimmermann threw too many strikes. With his bulldog mentality, Zimmermann dislikes throwing balls to such a degree that when he got ahead of batters, he would still throw strikes, and often he would throw hittable pitches when up 0-2 or 1-2 in the count. Those are situations where a pitcher does not want to get burned. In 2012, batters hit .200/.253/.292 against Zimmermann when he had two strikes on them and .194/.204/.264 when he was ahead in the count. There is nothing wrong with either slash line, and both are around the MLB average for 2012, but Zimmermann is not an average pitcher.
Before 2013, when Zimmermann got ahead in the count, he would continue to pump strikes. This season, he has gone out of the zone bouncing his curveball or throwing a high fastball on several occasions. As a result of more willingness to pitch out of the zone, Zimmermann improved on his already great numbers and when ahead in the count, has held batters to a .164/.169/.242 line. With two strikes, he has suppressed almost all offense, holding opposing hitters to a line of .129/.162/.190. And as much as Zimmermann is not known as a strikeout pitcher, it is more because opposing batters won't let him get ahead. Zimmermann has gotten to a two-strike count in 154 of the 367 plate appearances against him, and when he does, he will finish batters off with a strikeout having struck out 61 of those 154 (40 percent). An average NL pitcher strikes out 34 percent of the batters that get to two-strike counts against him.
The fear of letting Zimmermann get ahead has led batters to swing early in the count, and not at the best pitches. Zimmermann's groundball rate has jumped from 43.4 percent in 2012 to 50.9 percent in 2013 while his line-drive rate has dropped from 23.2 percent to 19.8 percent. By swinging early in the count, batters are helping Zimmermann go deeper into games while they consistently make weak contact. The one last issue Zimmermann had in 2012 that has been corrected in 2013 is seeing batters for a third time. In 2012 when going through the order for the third time, batters hit .288/.335/.445 off of Zimmermann and in 2013, that has dropped to .247/.270/.381. It is mostly due to the fact that Zimmermann is more able to keep hitters off-balance because of his added changeup. He may have only thrown it 46 times this season, but he only threw it 66 all of last season, and sometimes the fear of a pitch is more valuable than the pitch itself.
All in all, Zimmermann has corrected every minor issue he had in the 2012 season in 2013. And when arbitration numbers are exchanged and the Nationals want to discuss an extension with Zimmermann, he can point to pitchers like Matt Cain and Jered Weaver and ask for closer to $100 million than the $40 million with options he would have gotten had he signed a long-term deal before the 2013 season.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.