Former Express hurler Zimmermann quietly dominating big league hitters
MINNEAPOLIS — Jordan Zimmermann, who had been putting away hitters all game with his filthy slider, switched it up. He went with the high fastball on a 2-2 count. John Ryan Murphy clearly wasn’t looking for the 92-mile-per-hour heater. He swung right through it.
After his seventh strikeout, Zimmermann stoically walked back to the dugout with his head down, knowing he was likely done for the day. His line read seven innings, six hits, no walks and one run. A fantastic start for most.
For Zimmermann, it was business as usual.
The Detroit Tigers have come to expect that type of performance from the former Eau Claire Express standout, who became the first Tiger to ever win five times in April in just five appearances when Detroit beat the Minnesota Twins 4-1 on Saturday at Target Field. He’s now allowed just two runs in his first 33 innings for his new team, good for a major league-best 0.55 ERA.
“It’s been a fun run,” Zimmermann said. “I’m pitching probably the best I’ve pitched my entire career.”
That’s saying something for a two-time All-Star, but the Tigers know Zimmermann isn’t going to keep up his current pace all year. What they do know is that even when Zimmermann isn’t his sharpest, they can count on one of the most reliable starters in Major League Baseball over the past four seasons to battle every fifth day.
“We feel good about him taking the mound in the sense that you feel like he’s going to give you a chance to win,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “He’s not going to throw up zeroes every time, but he’s not going to back down and gives you a chance to win nine out of 10 times.”
That’s exactly what the Tigers had in mind when they signed Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million deal in the offseason. With some uncertainty surrounding Anibal Sanchez’s health and Justin Verlander’s effectiveness at the top of the rotation, the Tigers needed someone they could count on. And Zimmermann was that guy.
He wasn’t the most sought after free agent on the market. There were concerns that the 29-year-old was on the decline. His fastball sat in the 92-93 mile per hour range in 2015 rather than the 93-94 area he’d hit for most of his career. His strikeout rate was down, and his ERA was up to 3.66. But the Tigers didn’t care.
They loved that he hasn’t been on the disabled since recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2009 and has logged at least 195 innings and 12 wins in each of the past four seasons. They made Zimmermann their top priority over David Price, Zack Greinke and Johnny Cueto. And Zimmermann set out to assure the Tigers they put their money on the right guy.
“When you come over to a new team, you always want to show them what you’ve got and hopefully give them some good outings,” Zimmermann said. “I’ve been able to do that five in a row here. They knew what they were getting, and it was just up to me to reassure them what they were getting, and so far it’s working out.”
His fastball velocity is still down, but Zimmermann’s repertoire is still deadly. He puts movement on the fastball and paints the corners. His 12-6 curveball is a nice wrinkle. And that slider is tough to square up. But more than anything, what still makes Zimmermann effective is his fearlessness on the mound. It’s the first thing Tigers pitching coach Rich Dubee noticed about him.
“He attacks. He’s on the attack all the time,” Dubee said. “He fills the zone with multiple pitches. He tries to get ahead and stay ahead and finish people, and it’s been effective for him.”
Command has always been Zimmermann’s biggest strength. He rarely gets himself in trouble with walks. It’s been as good as ever during this five-game stretch. The slider in particular — which has always been his out pitch, yet he’s throwing it more than ever this year — has been spot on.
“It’s so much fun to sit back and know whatever pitch you call, he’s going to be able to throw it where he wants, miss barrels and just attack hitters,” Tigers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “He’s able to throw the slider any time. Throw it for a strike, just off the plate or backdoor it.”
How it all started
All the things that make Zimmermann so good now — his durability, his command, his fearlessness — are nothing new. They were all present nearly 10 years ago when he took the Northwoods League by storm during the summer of 2006 donning the Express uniform. It may have been his electric stuff that put the Division III kid on the radar of major league scouts for the first time, but that’s not what Express manager Dale Varsho remembers most about Zimmermann’s time in Eau Claire.
“Composure was off the charts,” Varsho said. “He was just a true professional. He never even shook his head on the mound. He never talked to an umpire, just went about his business. And that’s kind of exactly what he does now.”
Varsho’s first experience with Zimmermann came in the summers of 2003 and 2004, when Varsho coached an American Legion team in Marshfield that Zimmermann, a native of nearby Auburndale, played on. Pitching in a town of with a population of less than 800 people, Zimmermann wasn’t recruited much in high school and ended up at the nearest college, UW-Stevens Point.
After Zimmermann turned in a solid sophomore year with the Pointers, Varsho remembered the tremendous athlete he once coached — the wide receiver and safety in high school considered playing football in college — and thought he could hold his own against Division I talent.
He did much more than that.
In a season in which the Express, in their second year of existence, had a losing season, Zimmermann was one of the few bright spots. He led the league with a 1.01 ERA, his 91 strikeouts are the most ever for an Express pitcher and, of course, the workhorse logged 80 1/3 innings, another Express single-season record.
More importantly for Zimmermann, the relatively unnoticed stud quickly became a must-see for scouts of every major league team. Varsho remembers exactly when the interest started. It was a home game against Duluth at Carson Park. Back then, there was no radar gun in the outfield showing the pitcher’s speed, but a Cleveland Indians scout clocked him at 94 — in his seventh inning of work.
“It was fun to be around him for the three years that I had him,” Varsho said. “You could see the maturity. You could see his arm develop. You could see his body develop. He was always just very humble. It was always, whatever happens, happens. I’m going to make my pitches, get ahead and do things that are going to make me successful. That’s kind of how he developed all the way through his career.”
Varsho won’t pretend he knew Zimmermann would end up where he is today. It’s hard to predict that at that stage in a player’s career. But Varsho saw that the talent, makeup and work ethic were there, and that’s what Zimmermann used to make it to the biggest stage.
He turned down offers to transfer to a Division I school — Nebraska really wanted him — and dominated in his junior year with the Pointers before the Nationals took him 67th overall in the 2007 draft. He quickly rose through the minor leagues, debuted with the Nationals in 2009 and quietly became one of the game’s best pitchers.
Even with all the success that’s come his way, Zimmermann hasn’t deviated from who he’s always been. The man of few words during his time in Eau Claire is still pretty quiet. He still shows little emotion on the mound. He credits his catcher, defense and coaches when he does well. He blames himself when he doesn’t. The way he conducts himself makes him more of a leader than any words can. And the Tigers are excited about what his future holds.
“We have yet to be disappointed when he takes the mound,” Ausmus said. “If can keep doing this over the length of his contract, he might get another one that’s even bigger when it’s over.”