Tigers' Alex Avila sees good things coming for Zimmermann

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Anaheim, Calif. — Manager Brad Ausmus was correct on a couple of fronts before the game Saturday.

Talking about the team in general, he said, “There has never been a storm in May you can’t overcome.”

And speaking specifically about the struggles of pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, he said, “What’s it been, seven starts? I don’t know if it’s a trend yet.”

The Tigers aren’t going to give up on Zimmermann in May. Yes, he has been tagged for five runs and 10 or more hits in three of his last four starts and his numbers across the board are ugly — 6.28 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, .321 opponents’ batting average.

But it would be grossly premature to write him off based on that — seven starts, after essentially missing four and half months with groin, neck and shoulder issues — especially when he’s in the second year of a five-year, $110 million contract.

And if you can look beyond the results, you can see why the Tigers, and Zimmermann, remain encouraged. His fastball Friday night was ringing 93-94 mph, the firmest it’s been all season. His slider, curveball and change-up have improved steadily after being nearly unusable in his first few starts.

He is last among major league pitchers in getting ground ball outs, but he got seven Friday night, including a big double play with the bases loaded in the second inning.

“I think he’s right on track,” catcher Alex Avila said. “His stuff is there. You could easily see it yesterday. I think the past few starts he’s had some really bad luck, as far as giving up runs or innings started on hits that are usually outs.

“You could easily have taken three runs off the board yesterday, real easily. I told him next start I’m bringing a rabbit’s foot with me.”

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There were bloop hits and swinging bunts and defensive misplays that put him in a bind Friday. But there also another home run, his fourth allowed in two starts.

His FIP (fielding independent pitching) is 6.05 — which supports the bad-luck theory. But, according Fan Graphs, he has a 27 percent line drive rate and 42.3 percent hard-hit rate — both career-worsts.

So, it’s not all bad luck.

“It’s got to change,” Zimmermann said on Friday. “I feel good out there. The ball is finally coming out good. I hope it changes soon. I am still making mistakes, don’t get me wrong. But I’m getting unlucky, too.”

Avila feels the winds of change coming for Zimmermann. He has seen the gradual but steady progression in terms of his velocity, depth on the breaking balls and command.

“At the end of the day, the line is the line,” Avila said. “But the past few starts, even though the line doesn’t look good, you know he’s definitely not pitching to where the results are … As long as he keeps getting better, there is going to be a point in the season where it evens out, everything will start clicking and he’ll start to get some good luck.”

Think about what Zimmermann is coming back from. These seven starts were his first healthy outings since last April. He tried to pitch through the injuries and wound up altering his mechanics to circumvent the discomfort.

He’s had to not only rebuild his arm strength but also re-learn his mechanics — re-learn how to pitch healthy.

“It’s taken awhile to get back into rhythm, build his arm strength and trust everything,” Avila said. “I can picture it. As the season goes on, there’s going to be a stretch where he is solid.”

The fastball velocity is just one part of the picture. Zimmermann’s not likely to get back to the 95-96 mph four-seamer he had in Washington. But he still has good life on it, even at 93 mph.

“Yeah, he’s given up a couple of home runs, but more often than not, he’s getting mishits,” Avila said. “That’s important. Some guys when they are 92-93, there’s an extra gear to the fastball. Other guys are at 92-93 but there isn’t that little extra at the end.

“Jordan has that. He’s always had that. He had some command issues early but you’ve seen him get progressively better.”

Avila isn’t just blowing smoke.

“He’s going to be big for us,” he said. “He’s going to hit a stretch this year that’s going to be huge for us as a team.”

Twitter @cmccosky