McCosky: Mastering change-up could reverse fortunes of Tigers' Jordan Zimmermann

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Man, why do you keep writing about Jordan Zimmermann? Give it up, already. He’s a bust. Dead money. Worst free-agent signing ever.

That’s a typical reaction to any article written about Zimmermann these days. A lot of people just don’t want to hear about it anymore. It’s understandable. He was signed to a five-year, $110 million contract and has fallen well short of expectations.

Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann has been trying to master a change-up to add to his arsenal.

That there have been mitigating circumstances — injuries and reduced velocity on his fastball — doesn’t seem to assuage much of the vocal paying public. That he may be on the verge of regaining his top-of-the-rotation form, well, that will be a hard sell without consistent tangible proof.

That’s a sports fan’s prerogative.   

It goes deeper than that for the Tigers. They already have sunk $60 million into this investment. They owe Zimmermann $25 million for both 2019 and 2020. His and Miguel Cabrera’s salaries could account for nearly a third of the Tigers big-league payroll next year.

They aren’t about to liquidate this investment now.

Zimmermann is healthy. This will be the first offseason in two years that he didn’t need some type of medical procedure or rehabilitation. And there’s been evidence, enough flashes, enough quality innings to render hope of salvaging some kind of return on it — be it as the productive veteran leader of a young and getting younger rotation or as a means to acquire more prospects. 

As uneven as this season has been for him, he’s still posted the lowest ERA (4.31), WHIP (1.225) and opponents’ batting average (.262) since he’s been a Tiger. His strikeout-to-walk rate of 4.46 to 1 is also the best since he signed.

He’s given up two runs or less in 11 of 24 starts (he left one start in the first inning after he was struck in the face by a line drive). The Tigers are 11-13 in those starts. Nobody is campaigning for a Cy Young vote here, and nobody is trying to justify the production against his $24 million salary.

But it’s not yet a lost cause, from the Tigers' perspective. Yes, he will be 33 next season and the game is not exactly littered with successful starting pitchers that age. Max Scherzer (34) and Justin Verlander (35) are outliers, for sure.

Season of change

As a reference point, though, look at former Tiger Anibal Sanchez. He dealt with injuries and velocity loss in his early 30s. He dealt with the same kind of inconsistency and small margin for error that Zimmermann has battled the last couple of seasons.

But here is he this year, at age 34, helping the Atlanta Braves win the National League East. He’s 7-6 with a 2.96 ERA and 1.087 WHIP.  So what changed for him? A lot of things, certainly. But relative to Zimmermann, the turnaround for Sanchez can be linked, at least in part, to his change-up.

Granted, Sanchez carries six pitches in his tool bag, double what Zimmermann has in his. But a lot of those pitches were ineffective until he was able to increase the velocity differential between his fastballs and off-speed pitches.

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This year, he’s thrown his change-up (he has a circle change and a splitter) 25 percent of the time, and opponents are hitting just .201 against it. The average velocity on his change-up is 81 mph, 10 mph less than his fastball.

It’s not necessarily his out pitch. His cutter has been a weapon of choice. But he uses the change-up to keep hitters off-balance and off his fastballs.

Zimmermann doesn’t have that capability right now. His four-seamer is averaging 91 mph. His change-up, which has been a work-in-progress for years, averages 87 mph, the same as his slider. It’s too firm to get hitters out in front of it.

Which is why he’s only used it six percent of the time, and when he has it’s gotten whacked (.417 opponents average).

“That’s kind of been the topic of our talks,” Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “We’ve been doing a lot with the change-up, and he’s starting to get a little feel for it. But it’s a little hard right now. … I explained to him, back when he was throwing his fastball at 94, he was fastball-slider and that was OK.

“But now that he’s 90, now we’ve got to talk about changing speeds. He’s on board with that.”

It’s too simplistic to say that all Zimmermann needs to get back on point is to shave 3-4 mph off his change-up. But that is certainly a mandatory step.

“I know it,” Zimmermann said. “The whole staff knows it. Anybody who has a change-up, it makes your fastball better. I have pretty short arm action (which is not conducive to throwing change-ups) but my arm is the way it is.

“Even if I can get it down to 84 mph, I think that will play.”

Get a grip

Zimmermann has been trying to add a change-up to his arsenal for years. It was a running joke during spring training with the Nationals. First story every spring training was that this was the year he was going to add a change-up.

It was funny when he could overpower hitters with his fastball. It’s no laughing matter now.

He’s tried just about every known change-up grip. He tried a Vulcan grip that Joaquin Benoit used. He’s tried a circle grip like Francisco Liriano uses. And this season he tried a modified split-fingered grip. Nothing has stuck.

“We did some of that with the split-fingered grip,” Anderson said. “I don’t want him to split the fingers too much because it stresses the elbow. We tried splitting him a little bit (just slightly wider than a two-seam fastball grip). He had a nice feel for it with that grip, but it didn’t slow him down enough.”

Anderson had right-handed pitcher Carl Pavano toward the end of his career in Minnesota. Pavano had a huge comeback season at age 34, going 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA in 2010. The difference-maker for him was a modified circle grip on his change-up.

That’s the grip that has Zimmermann encouraged.

“It’s like a three-fingered fastball,” Zimmermann said. “I threw some in my bullpen between my last two starts and by the end of it, I got it down to 80-83 mph. That’s exactly what I was looking for. Then I took it into the game (Saturday) and I got three outs with it.”

With the adrenaline pumping, the velocity on the three change-ups was 85, 86 and 87 — still too hard.

“But I know I can slow my body down a little bit to where the hitters aren’t noticing my arm speed,” he said. “I feel a lot better about doing that with this grip than the other one. I feel a lot better with this. I feel comfortable with it.

“I’m excited to go into the off-season and work on it.”

He understands the significance of mastering that pitch.

“He said, ‘Come hell or high water, I am going to go home this winter and all I am going to throw are fastballs and change-ups, fastballs and change-ups. I am going to get this damn thing,’” Anderson said. “So, we’ll come into spring and see where he’s at.”

Zimmermann put it this way:

“If I don’t have it by spring training, I am never going to have it.”

Tigers at Twins

Series: Three-game series at Target Field, Minneapolis

First pitch: 8:10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday

TV/radio: All games on Fox Sports Detroit/97.1 FM

Probables: Tuesday — TBA vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (0-1, 10.80); Wednesday — RHP Jake Odorizzi (7-10, 4.35) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (9-12, 4.16); Thursday — TBA vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (5-11, 4.40).

TBA, Twins: Mostly likely, the Twins will start a relief pitcher in the first inning and then turn the game over to the primary pitcher, which could be right-hander Kohl Stewart.

Turnbull, Tigers: He will get a do-over against the Twins. He made his first big-league start against them last Wednesday and got ambushed with a four-run second inning. He ended up allowing six runs and six hits over four innings.

Twitter: @cmccosky