Tigers' Jordan Zimmermann sees 2020 as a crossroad, not end of the road

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
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Detroit — It seems every time you tune in to one of the classic baseball games the networks are re-airing these days, a younger Jordan Zimmermann is out there pitching his tail off in a milestone game for the opposing pitcher.

There he is on June 4, 2009 at Nationals Park, just his ninth career start, dueling a 45-year-old Randy Johnson, then with the Giants. Zimmermann struck out seven over six innings that day, allowed three hits, all after he got two strikes on the hitters, and all in a two-run second inning.

Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, shown here in spring training, went 1-13 last season with a 6.91 ERA in 112 innings pitched.

That was all the damage he allowed, but that was the day Johnson turned back the clock and posted his 300th career win.

“I was in quite a few games like that,” Zimmermann laughed.

The networks have recently shown another of Zimmermann’s starts at Nationals Park. This one is more recent, and he was wearing a Tigers’ uniform. May 11, 2016, Zimmermann pitched seven strong innings that night, allowing just three runs.

But that was the night former Tiger Max Scherzer struck out 20 in a 3-2 win.

You’d think they’d just once show Zimmermann’s no-hitter, which he threw on the final day of the 2014 season against the Marlins.

But Zimmermann isn’t all that interested in reliving his past — on television or otherwise.

Like everyone else, he’s champing at the bit to play baseball in 2020. He’s back home in Wisconsin working out, throwing four or five times a week and throwing one bullpen (to Arizona Diamondbacks catching prospect Daulton Varsho) a week.

“I think I am going to start ramping it up in a week or two,” he said in a phone interview Monday with The Detroit News. “It depends on what we hear, which hasn’t been much. But I don’t want them to all of a sudden say spring training is in seven days and here I am throwing one 40-pitch bullpen a week.

“I want to get in some up-and-downs and other stuff so I can come in a little more advanced.”

This is a crossroads year for Zimmermann.

He turns 34 years old on May 23 and is entering the last of the five-year, $110 million contract late owner Mike Ilitch gave him prior to the 2016 season. A couple of years ago, when Zimmermann was breaking down physically and taking nerve-blocking injections in his shoulder and neck just to get back on the mound, he thought 2020 would be the end of his career, too.

Not now.

“Yeah, I thought about retiring a few years ago, but coming into spring training this year, I felt really good,” Zimmermann said. “I haven’t had any issues. I still have the drive and I still love the game. I am not thinking about retirement now — not right now, anyway.

“I feel great and I feel I have some years left to keep playing. But, you just take it one year at a time. That’s all you can really do.”

He knows this will be his last year in Detroit. There is a stable of young, talented starting pitchers just about ready to take over the rotation. He also knows at age 34, his market in normal circumstances would be limited.

But at least he’d hoped to make 30 mostly healthy starts in 2020 to create some interest. With the COVID-19 pandemic shutting baseball down now for at least two months and probably longer, he’ll be lucky to get 20 starts.

“There’s nothing you can really do,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys in the same boat. Whatever happens, you know. If we can get 100 games in or whatever it ends up being, that is what teams will have to go on for next year.

“Just have to come out of the gate hot. I’m telling myself it’s going to be more of a sprint than a marathon. Every start matters. Every game matters. Then what happens at the end of the year, I can’t really do much more.

“I don’t know what the market is even going to be like for next year. It’s all different now.”

Zimmermann hopes he has enough time to show he’s different, too. Although he got a scare when his elbow flared up last year (it turned out to be a muscle injury; not a ligament), he hasn’t had to take any injections in his neck or shoulder since last season. His last major medical procedures was core muscle surgery in October 2018.

“I’ve been feeling strong,” he said. “I went back to kind of my offseason training program, lifting four times a week and really getting after it pretty good. Now I am starting to transition into my regular-season program — not as much heavy weights and more mobility stuff.”

He’s coming at hitters differently, too. Last year was the first year he truly committed to using a two-seam fastball. He stubbornly stayed with his four-seamer, even as the average velocity dipped to 90 mph, just a few mph firmer than his slider, which moved on the same plane.

Finally, after getting hit hard coming back from the elbow injury last year, he said enough is enough and, with a little nudge from former Tigers' catcher Bobby Wilson, fully incorporated the two-seamer. 

“I think sometimes his four-seamer and his slider can kind of run into each other a little bit," Wilson said last year. “We always talk about X-ing out the corners. 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.”

With a slider and two-seamer, Zimmermann has the pitches to do that. He then can use his four-seam to work up in the zone and his curve ball to work down. 

“I was excited about the way hitters were reacting to it,” Zimmermann said. “But it’s not going anywhere. It’s still good and I’m still working on it. Like everybody else, I am just doing every I can to be ready whenever they call us back.”


Twitter: @cmccosky

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