McCosky: Zimmermann's Alpha approach working against him

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann is 6-6 with a 4.38 ERA and 1.272 WHIP in 19 starts this season.

Kansas City, Mo. — You hear this a lot, especially in professional sports: Your greatest strength can sometimes be your greatest weakness.

It rings true with Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann these days.

His calling card has always been his fierce competitive nature and an unwavering belief in himself. While he was posting All-Star campaigns with the Nationals, he was the definition of a bulldog. It didn’t matter the count. You want to ambush him on the first pitch? Fine, here’s the heater — good luck. He’s got you 0-2, he’s not wasting a pitch. Here’s the heater — good luck.

But there comes a point where bulldog becomes bullheaded. And at age 32, after a couple of injury-plagued seasons, Zimmermann seems to be walking that line. The things he could get away with when his fastball was clocking at 94-95 mph, he’s not able to now with the radar gun reading 90, 91, 92 mph.

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His spin rate on his four-seam isn’t above the Major-League average any more. And that high hard one isn’t missing as many bats as it once did. Pitching coach Rick Anderson has encouraged Zimmermann to set his sights lower — work down, not up; miss down, not up.

Old habits, though, they don’t die easy.

“It’s a tough situation to be in,” Zimmermann said Sunday after allowing five runs and eight hits in six innings against the White Sox. “My mentality my whole career has been to fill up the zone and get guys out in three pitches or less.

“But it seems like on a lot of guys, I get 0-2 and 1-2, and I tell myself, ‘All right, let’s get this over with and make a quality pitch here.’ But there will be a broken bat and or a jam shot and, boom — two bloops and a blast.”

Zimmermann has walked one batter in his last 23.1 innings. If you look at his zone charts (Statcast), you will see big blobs of colored ink in the heart of the strike zone, and just a few drops around the edges. He averaged 1.9 walks per nine innings over his career — he and Cleveland’s Corey Kluber are the MLB's active leaders in that statistic.

'Around the zone too much'

Except now, without the ability to consistently burn high fastball by hitters, and with the slider not being the chase pitch it once was, his pound-the-zone insistence can work against him.

Nobody has exploited that better than the young, free-swinging White Sox. In four starts against Zimmermann, they have scored 21 runs (20 earned) and pounded out 30 hits in 20.1 innings.

“It’s not like I’ve pitched horribly,” Zimmermann said. “I am just around the zone too much and they swing at everything.”

So, don’t be around the zone so much, right? If only it were that simple.

The third inning was a prototype of the crooked-number innings that have bedeviled Zimmermann this year. He got two fast swing-and-miss strikes on the leadoff hitter, Nicky Delmonico, slider and curveball. But on a 1-2 pitch, he tried to burn a 91-mph fastball by him and Delmonico swatted a single.

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Next batter, Adam Engel, hit an 0-1 breaking ball for another hit. It looked like he was going to work out of the inning, though, when he jammed Yolmer Sanchez with an 0-2 slider and turned the soft liner back to him into a double play.

But he got behind in the count to Tim Anderson, after a pitch-out and another ball, and his 2-1 fastball was tagged for a double. Avisail Garcia singled on a 1-0 change-up and then Daniel Palka ambushed a first-pitch slider for a two-run homer.

Four runs after two were out. There was an impatience to the way he went after those last three hitters, especially after the Anderson at-bat. Same thing in the sixth. With two outs, Omar Narvaez doubled, beating the Tigers’ shift.

Zimmermann was visibly peeved by that and he threw a breaking ball to Yoan Moncada, who ripped a triple.

“He was hanging in there but he got a couple of balls up and they got him,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Those guys are just really aggressive hitters and when you are around the zone, they put some good swing on you.”

Zimmermann attacks with strikes and chase pitches. He’s not, nor ever has been, a nibbler. To all of a sudden expect him to consistently throw competitive pitches just outside the strike zone isn’t realistic.

'I've pitched well'

But here’s what’s happening: Teams know he’s going to be in the zone and they know he’s bringing four-seamers the majority of the time, especially early in the count when he’s looking to get ahead.

Opponents this season are hitting .303 against his four-seam fastball, with a .561 slugging and a .384 weighted on-base average (wOBA). And they are ambushing him often, hitting .309 with nine home runs, a .603 slugging percentage and a .912 OPS when swinging at his first pitch.

Opponents in 0-1 counts are hitting .367 off him, with a .903 OPS. They are hitting .212 with three home runs in 0-2 counts. That’s a lot of damage in pitcher-friendly counts.

Here’s another one: Right-handed hitters are hitting him at a .290 with a .503 slugging and .803 OPS — well above his career averages of .258, .409 and .705 in those categories. Right-handed hitters are sitting fastball a lot and doing a lot of damage (.368).

What would help, and he’s said this on several occasions, is to lower the velocity on his change-up. Presently, the average velocity on his change-up is the same as his slider — 87 mph. His curveball, which comes and goes, is his only true off-speed pitch (81 mph).

“To me, things have been going great since from a few starts before the All-Star break and after,” Zimmermann said. “I feel like I’ve pitched well, other than the two starts against these guys (White Sox). I wouldn’t change anything. The ball is coming out good and the slider is good.

“The change-up is a little hard. This offseason, if I could work on one thing, it would be just to get that thing slowed down a little bit. The rest is pretty solid.”

Truth be told, this the best of Zimmermann’s three seasons in Detroit. His ERA (4.38) and WHIP (1.27) are his lowest in a Tigers’ uniform, as are the opponents’ batting average (.274) and OPS (.786). But, the Tigers’ expectations, Zimmermann’s expectations, when they signed the five-year, $110 million contract, were higher than that.

There is a better pitcher inside this guy, even with the low-90s fastball. But it may take something more than a slower change-up to bring it out. Something more along the lines of an acquiescence to a less Alpha, less confrontational mode of attack.

On deck: Royals

Series: Two games at Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.

First pitch: Tuesday 8:15 p.m.; Wednesday 2:15 p.m.

TV/radio: Both games on FSD/97.1.

Probables: Tuesday — RHP Jakob Junis (6-12, 4.70) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (8-11, 4.09); Wednesday — LHP Danny Duffy (7-11, 4.85) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (3-9, 4.32).

Junis, Royals: He’s probably glad to see the Tigers. He’s already beaten them three times, limiting them to four runs in 22 innings with 18 strikeouts. He’s pitched well in his last four starts, 2.45 ERA, but the Royals have lost all four.

Boyd, Tigers: He is coming off six shutout innings against the White Sox. Boyd ranks eighth among American League starters with a .220 opponents’ batting average and ninth with a 1.11 WHIP. This will be his fourth start against the Royals. He limited them to two runs over seven innings at Kauffman Stadium on July 25.