Detroit — Tigers pitching coach Chris Bosio saw it right away. Watching video of Jordan Zimmermann from last season, it didn’t look anything like the pitcher he’d seen be dominant for a four-year stretch in Washington.
And it was a far cry from the pitcher he watched strike out 16 and overwhelm his Wisconsin-Oshawa team in a Division III tournament game in 2006, back when Zimmermann was playing at Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“The first time I talked to him (in November), he was already watching film on me,” Zimmermann said. “He said he saw something that needed correcting. I am excited to get working with him and get it figured out.”
Zimmermann has gone through a battery of mechanical adjustments since he started having nerve issues in his neck and shoulder in 2016. But what Bosio saw had nothing to do with arm angle or throwing mechanics.
Bosio put a clock on Zimmermann’s time to home plate. What he discovered was alarming: Zimmermann’s time to the plate had increased by a full second from his last season in Washington. That’s serious lag time for a pitcher.
“I didn’t know how bad it really was,” Zimmermann said.
Bosio, who comes to the Tigers after six successful seasons with the Cubs where he helped transform the careers of Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, believes there are still some productive years left for Zimmermann.
“When you are hurt, you start to develop different habits, just trying to get by,” Bosio said. “I wasn’t here, but from the conversations I’ve had and the things I can see on video, he was really trying to gut things out.
“But that’s the warrior in him. You can’t take that away because he’s a guy that wants to be out there. But tempo was big with Jordan.”
Bosio still remembers Zimmermann in 2006, pitching quick, commanding his fastball in and out, up and down, mixing in a breaking ball, though he really didn’t need it to dominate at that level.
“It was the tempo, but it was also the ‘I’m going to ram the ball down your throat’ attitude,” Bosio said. “That was infectious. You can feed off that. And that’s what I want to stress here with everybody. Dictate tempo.
“We’re going to play an up-tempo game. We’re going to try to control the tempo of the game, try to get three quick outs and turn it over to the offense. But we need to control tempo.”
Once Bosio implements his plan, a pitch clock shouldn’t be any issue for Tigers pitchers.
“We’re not going to need the pitch clock,” he said. “We’re going to be on the mound waiting for that hitter to get in the box and we’re going to be ready to go. I promise, you are going to see that.”
Bosio, who won 94 games over 11 big-league seasons and finished with a 3.96 ERA, was a fierce competitor on the mound and he has instilled the same demeanor in his pitchers since he began coaching in 1998.
“I loved to compete,” he said. “A lot of the things these guys (Tigers pitchers) have I had as a young player — the willingness to get better. The willingness to fight, compete and be the last guy standing. We have that. But collectively, it’s our job as coaches to get them better and to teach each other.”
There are definitive traits that mark a Bosio-coached pitcher.
“I want these guys to be able to throw any pitch at any time,” he said. “I’ve been a big believer in pitching inside. I believe in soft contact and I’m a big believer in taking advantage of your defense and trying to be pitch-efficient.
“If you can do those things, you are going to be successful.”
Bosio showed up Saturday at TigerFest limping and wearing a protective boot on his right ankle. Late in the season with the Cubs, a batting-practice line drive shattered the ankle. He postponed surgery until after the playoffs. It took 13 pins to put the ankle back together.
But the pain in his ankle couldn’t dim his enthusiasm for the challenge ahead. And let’s be frank — the challenge is immense. He’s taking over a pitching staff that ranked last in Major League Baseball in ERA (5.36) and WHIP (1.50).
“These guys are young and hungry,” he said. “They are eager to learn. The want-to is there. They want to win, but they know it’s going to take some time. Collectively, we will work hard together and try to be better.”
The year before he took over in Chicago (2011), the Cubs ranked 25th in ERA and 22nd in opponent batting average. In 2016, on their way to a World Series title, they led baseball in both categories.
“We’ve got some guys with pretty good track records,” he said. “Michael Fulmer, when healthy, is legitimate. So is Zimmermann, when healthy. But I know the organization feels this way, too — we need five guys to be healthy. History tells you that if you have five healthy starters, you have a chance to do anything.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire is a proponent of set roles in the bullpen. Bosio is too, in a perfect world. The Tigers’ world isn’t likely to be perfect for quite a while.
“With a more veteran team, yes, you want set roles,” Bosio said. “With a younger team you have to have flexibility. Another thing I was taught — we have a lot of guys who are in their first or second or third year — and they’ve got to prove themselves.
“(Former Brewers manager) George Bamberger used to say, ‘Son, grab a shovel and start digging. You gotta earn your keep around here.’ ”
Here was Bosio’s indoctrination into the big leagues: He had been a closer in Triple A when the Brewers called him up. His first big-league appearance was as a starting pitcher.
“Bamberger told me, ‘I know you are a closer, but there is a reason you are here,’ ” Bosio said. “After I made the start, I went back to the ’pen. I don’t know if it will be that drastic here, but I can see it working in a similar fashion.
“With a young team, you don’t really know what you have. The talent is there, but they have to get out there and they have to do it. They will have an opportunity to have success in many different roles.”
Bosio’s immediate focus is fixed on the big-league club. But his eyes lit up when he was asked about the young, talented arms coming up through the system.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Big arms, good bodies.”
The Tigers placed four pitchers in MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects — Franklin Perez (39), Matt Manning (55), Alex Faedo (59) and Beau Burrows (77).
“The thing that’s equally impressive is how they communicate with you,” said Bosio, who recently spoke with Faedo, who will make his professional debut this season. “Talking with Faedo and how he’s going about it. Working with A.J. Sager, our pitching coordinator on the structure. These guys have a good thing going and I’m just going to try and contribute whatever I can.”