Tigers' Zimmermann tired of 'getting punched in the face,' searching for a way to hit back

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Jordan Zimmermann has allowed 69 hits and 42 runs over 52.2 innings. The Tigers are 3-8 in games he starts this season.

Cleveland — The topic was the unpredictable nature of pitching, for which this Tigers staff could be a case study.

“I love that saying, ‘Insanity is repeating something over and over again expecting different results,’” Blaine Hardy said. “Except it doesn’t apply to baseball.”

To illustrate his point, Hardy recalled a start by David Price early in his brief stay with the Tigers. It was Aug. 27, 2014 against the Yankees and Hardy remembers it well because he replaced him in the game. After two scoreless innings, Price gave up nine straight hits and five runs without recording an out in the third.

“He threw like 55-60 pitches,” Hardy said. “He was throwing strikes and doing what he normally does. But it was base hit after base hit. Percentage-wise, that’s an astronomical occurrence for that many hits to happen.

“Watch batting practice. These are balls being thrown right down the middle and at least 40 percent of the time the hitters are basically getting themselves out. It’s not easy to hit.”

So, you are saying in baseball it’s better to repeat the insanity because the results will eventually change?

“To an extent,” Hardy said with a smile. “To an extent. But if you go four, five bad outings in a row, then something’s got to be wrong.”

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That’s about where Jordan Zimmermann’s head is at right now. He’s made five starts since coming back off the injured list, but he already knows there’s no point in repeating the insanity.

“I have to do something to get my confidence back,” he said on Wednesday. “It’s probably at an all-time low right now.”

He’s given up seven runs in each of his last two starts and since his first two starts of the season — where he allowed only a run in 13.2 innings — well, it’s not been pretty. His ERA is 9.23 in his last nine starts and opponents are hitting .363 and slugging .602 with an OPS of 1.018.

“It’s just about getting out there, getting a decent start under my belt, instead of getting punched in the face every time out," he said. "I just need to put a good start together and build off of that.”

Something to build from

Short of completely reinventing himself at age 33 and in his 11th big-league season, Zimmermann is searching for something, anything, to reverse his fortunes. In a perfect world, the bite and sink on his slider would magically reappear.

Since his elbow flared up, though, the slider has been mostly flat. He’s had to rely on his curveball as the primary secondary pitch to his four-seam fastball, which is sitting at 90 mph.

So there he was on Monday, the day after giving up seven runs in four innings to the Royals, back in the bullpen working with pitching coach Rick Anderson.

“I wanted to figure the slider out, more than anything,” Zimmermann said. “It was much better. There’s more than one thing that’s causing it to be the way it is, but I have an idea what it is now. I’m just trying to have the same mechanics with it.”

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When it’s right, Zimmermann’s slider snaps downward. Most of this season, though, it’s been sweeping across the plate. He and Anderson believe the reason for that is his arm path has been going across his body, as if he was trying to skim stones across a pond.

“If I finish down toward my knee with my hand, I get that depth,” Zimmermann said. “I just need to keep throwing it and keep throwing it. It will come back to me eventually. I don’t know how long.”

In the meantime, he’s been working to incorporate a two-seam fastball, a sinker, into his mix. He threw 149 two-seamers back in 2017, but that was the only time in his career he threw it with any regularity.

“I had the sinker coming out of spring that year but I felt it was irritating my elbow, the way I was holding it,” he said. “I stopped throwing it. The one I am throwing now, I throw it just like my four-seam, just a little different grip.

“The grip I was using in ’17, I was splitting my fingers more and it was putting tension on my forearm.”

He reintroduced the sinker on Sunday, throwing 18 of them against the Royals, although Statcast recorded none of them as sinkers. They were charted either as four-seamers or change-ups, which is probably an indication that he’s not getting the desired action on the pitch yet.

“He was throwing it in his bullpen and it looked really good,” catcher Bobby Wilson said. “I think sometimes his four-seamer and his slider can kind of run into each other a little bit.”

Meaning they both move essentially on the same path — right to left, away from right-handed hitters and in to lefties.

“We always talk about X-ing out the corners,” Wilson said. “What I mean by that is, if you can get one ball going one way on a corner and another ball going the other way on a corner — X-ing it out — you generally have more success.

“That could be something that will help him get back to where he wants to be.”

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Zimmermann agreed, adding there isn’t much difference in the velocity of his slider and four-seam fastball, either. So a hitter can be sitting on a fastball and have no problem adjusting to the slider when it’s coming in the same plane and at roughly the same speed.

That’s another reason he gone to the curveball more the last two years. It’s his one true off-speed pitch. The two-seamer gives him a pitch that will fade away from left-handed hitters and in to right-handed hitters.

“When you are used to throwing that fastball right by people, you’re constantly trying to make adjustments to locate it,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Your mindset as you start losing velocity as you get older, your mind is telling you to blow the guy away.

“But your arm is saying, ‘No thank you.’ You’ve got to find other ways of getting guys out.”

No cutting bait

Zimmermann will make $25 million this year and $25 million next — the last two years on his five-year deal with the Tigers. There is a segment of the fan base that wants the Tigers to just cut him and eat the salary.

There is no benefit to that for the Tigers. It’s not like he’s keeping a younger pitcher stuck in the minor leagues. It’s not like there is a better option at Triple-A Toledo. To think “anybody other than Zimmermann” would be more productive is simply false.

And eating roughly $35 million (the prorated amount left this season) isn’t a practical business move, on any level. You don’t kick a player like Zimmermann — with his track record, with the intangibles his leadership and experience bring to a young pitching staff — to the curb.

You let him work through it and you take some hope in the fact that he’s willing to go outside his comfort zone to try different and even desperate measures to get back to right.

“At this point,” Zimmermann said, "I’ll try throwing left-handed. I am willing to try anything.”

Around the horn

The Tigers recalled right-handed reliever Zac Reininger from Triple-A Toledo to add a fresh arm in the bullpen.

Reininger struggled in a 17-game stint with the Tigers earlier this season (8.00 ERA, 2.056 WHIP).

“He pitched well up here at times,” Gardenhire said. “He is still centering the ball too much. He was tipping his pitches and we figured that out. We got him straightened out on that. Now we’ve got to get him to stay out of the center of the plate.”

... Niko Goodrum was scratched from the starting lineup Wednesday after he smashed the pinky on his throwing hand fielding ground balls during batting practice. X-rays were negative.

Tigers at Indians

First pitch: 7:10 p.m. Thursday, Progressive Field, Cleveland

TV/Radio: FSD/97.1

Scouting report:

►LHP Matthew Boyd (6-7, 3.95), Tigers: The strikeout totals aside, it’s been a rough stretch. In his last five starts, he’s given up 21 earned runs in 29.1 innings, with opponents hitting .282 and slugging .564. He’s allowed nine home runs in those 29 innings.

►RHP Trevor Bauer (8-7, 3.65), Indians: He’s been alternating good start-bad start since the middle of June. The Tigers got him for 10 hits and five runs in four innings on June 21. Since then he’s allowed one, five, one and three runs in his last four starts. Regardless, the Indians are 5-1 in his last six starts.


Twitter: @cmccosky