Coming into the 2012 season, the Washington Nationals were a chic pick to improve upon last year and even contend for a playoff spot for some (I gave them top NL wildcard with 87 wins), especially in light of the added wildcard. On the heels of their 80-81 record a year ago, they added two big time arms in Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson via trade and free agency, respectively. Perhaps even more importantly, they have Stephen Strasburg for most of the year (likely being capped around 160 innings) and Jordan Zimmermann for the entire season after his successful 161-inning return from Tommy John Surgery.
Zimmermann, a big time prospect in his own right though definitely a cut below Strasburg in terms of hype and pedigree, is building off of a solid foundation with 284 innings under his belt coming into the year during which he has posted a 3.84 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 7.7 K/9 and 3.5 K/BB. With the reins off in terms of an innings limit, he is poised for a breakout in what should be his first full season of action. He is off to great start already with a 1.29 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 5.0 K/BB in his 21 innings spread across three starts (he has exactly three 7-inning, 1-run outings).
The gaudy 5.0 K/BB rate catches the eye, but it is spurred by his allowing just two walks (0.9 BB/9) as his 4.3 K/9 is far from special. The first thought when strikeouts are down against expectations or track record is to check velocity, but Zimmerman’s fastball velocity is exactly the same as last year’s at 93.4 MPH so there is nothing amiss in that realm. In lieu of the strikeouts, he is inducing plenty of weak contact with a sky-high 52% groundball rate off of which batters have a meager .121 batting average. We saw something like this from him last April when he had a 4.3 K/9 while posting his best groundball rate of any month at 45% in 30 innings.
In fact, his two best groundball months were easily his worst strikeout months by a significant margin. In June, he had a 41% groundball rate while striking out just 5.7 K/9. In the other months (excluding April), his strikeout rate was 8.1 or better while the groundball rate failed to top 37%. Can he get back to inducing groundballs and missing bats simultaneously? In the first 23 starts of his career spanning 2009-2010, he had an 8.8 K/9 with a 46% groundball rate so he has the ability to combine the two skills.
A sharp difference early on has been his curveball and Zimm’s ability to generate swings-and-misses with it. In 2011, he was at a 15% swing-and-miss rate with it and for his career coming into 2012, he was at 21%. The curve has definitely been his knockout finisher in the past. This year he has just a 7% swing-and-miss rate on his bender due in large part to batters laying off of it as he tries to get them to chase out of the zone. Just 29% of his benders have even hit the zone compared to a healthy 51% coming into this season.
With hitters laying off the low, out-of-the-zone curveball, Zimmermann will need to change his approach if he wants his strikeout rate to return to previously established levels. Of course, we are just three starts into the season, too, so while there is definitely a difference between what we have seen from Zimm in the past, it could just be him getting a feel for the curve as the season starts.
Another difference we have seen in the early (and small) sample is that he isn’t afraid of contact with two strikes. Batters have put it in play during 21 of Zimm’s 34 two strike plate appearances (62%) with just a 29% strikeout rate while last year those rates were at 57% and 37%, respectively (meanwhile his career rates coming into ’12 are 55% and 38%).
It has served him well thus far with a .191 average and .491 OPS against in two strike situations, but in the long term he would be better served to start hitting the zone more (specifically with his curve as previously mentioned) and generating strikeouts instead of trusting his defense so often. Based on both his talent and stuff, I think we will see Zimmermann start putting away more hitters as the season progresses.
Batters will start to get more hits off of him going forward (5.6 H/9, .200 BABIP), but hopefully he is able to counter that with an improvement in punch-outs. You can’t argue with the outstanding results in his first three starts (though I’m sure he isn’t thrilled with the 8 runs of support from his offense across the three games) and I think we will see an even better Zimmermann going forward though the gaudy results (1.29 ERA, 0.71 WHIP) are sure to rise.
If anyone in your league is trying to “sell high” on Zimm in fear of the miniscule strikeout rate, take them up on it as long as the price isn’t egregious (Justin Verlander/Roy Halladay). I don’t think any reasonable fantasy manager expects a leaguemate to pay for a 1.29 ERA and 0.71 WHIP knowing full well that neither is sustainable, but if they are thinking of buying low on Josh Johnson or Tim Lincecum, for example, and offering Zimmermann as a foundation, then I would entertain such a move without question.