Detroit — His critics never seem sure of the precise numbers. They know only that Jordan Zimmermann’s time in Detroit has been a clash between performance and paychecks.
He started Wednesday for the Tigers in a game at Comerica Park that saw the White Sox win, 6-5. Zimmermann gave up a pair of runs each in the third, fourth, and fifth innings, which included a couple of long-range home runs from Matt Davidson and Jose Abreu.
Zimmermann now has pitched three seasons for the Tigers and has a 5.29 ERA. He makes $24 million this year and will pull $25 million in 2019 and again in 2020 as part of the five-season, $110-million package the Tigers bestowed on him in November of 2015.
If you want to get mad at anyone, and that might not be the right response, reserve it for the Tigers.
They were the team that decided of their own free will to bring on Zimmermann when he was six months from turning 30. Why they would have gone this route when history says free-agent pitchers on the cusp of 30 can be investments only slightly less risky than slot machines is easily explained.
Because Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was still with us. He wasn’t easing off his championship dream. The Tigers needed starters and Ilitch wanted his front office to land the best free-agent pitcher available, which then was Zimmermann.
To sign him, after he had prospered at Washington for seven seasons, meant the Tigers would pay what then was market rate. They offered five years and $110 million. Zimmermann bit.
'A lot can happen'
What can be said with six weeks left in the 2018 season is that both parties expected happier times.
“I’ve still got two years left,” Zimmermann said Wednesday, talking in front of his locker inside the Tigers clubhouse. “A lot of things can happen.”
It seemed wise Wednesday to chat with a pitcher, not about another game where a “pitch got up” or a pitch “got too much of the plate,” or any of the customary post-mortems you hear after a loss.
Rather, it was time to talk with Zimmermann about this entire Tigers experience. Was he as dissatisfied as fans who expected better, much better, in the 28 months since he first threw a pitch in a regular-season Tigers game?
He was fine with the question. He said, in general, he liked his first 10 starts in Detroit and his last 10 but that “it’s the two years in between I wish I could get back.”
In fact, other than one clunker of a game where he was popped for seven earned runs, he was brilliant in his first 10 starts for the Tigers in 2016. He had, after his start on June 3, 2016, a 2.58 ERA.
Even this year, in 10 of his 17 games, he has allowed three or fewer earned runs. His ERA heading into Wednesday’s game was 3.98. Not great, but neither has he been cannon fodder.
He insists this would have been a different saga had it not been for — you guessed it.
“Injuries happen,” he said. “It all boils down to injuries.
“Bulging discs in my neck. Bulging discs in my back. Pinched nerves that you don’t know why they flare up at what time.”
There's still time
He’s citing facts. Zimmermann’s had all kinds of neck and back and groin ailments. The disabled-list shuttling means he has averaged slightly more than 20 starts a season, which for those who fixate on salaries, equates to the Tigers having paid him about $1 million per game.
Does any of this leave him feeling uneasy?
No, he said. He’s simply disappointed that he hasn’t, physically, been the pitcher he was in Washington.
There is no personal disagreement, serious disagreement anyway, with Zimmermann’s view about himself or his time in Detroit. Any critique differs only in that it’s rare Zimmermann admits that he pitched a bad game. And he has pitched some bad games. Getting acknowledgment there can be all but futile, even if a certain right-handed pitcher from Auburndale, Wis., will disagree there.
He does, though, have a right to think of his time with the Tigers as being something other than one big expensive mistake by a team from Detroit. He made a point Wednesday about judgments when he's not yet 60 percent through his Tigers tenure.
“At the end of my contract, we can talk about it then,” he said, referring to a discussion that can't, fairly, occur much before September of 2020. “I don’t think the right time is today.”
That’s reasonable. Zimmermann is 32 years old with a couple of All-Star games on his resume. Given the options three years ago, it made more sense for the Tigers to have signed him than Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija or other high-end starters a certain team — beginning with an owner — wanted in Detroit, at whatever cost was necessary to sustain Ilitch's dream for another year.
The price tag was steep. The gamble was of the Tigers' choosing. Any regrets belong with a big-league club more than with a right-handed pitcher who insists, if his body cooperates, this joint venture might yet seem more prudent for the Tigers than it can possibly appear in August of 2018.