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Trying to explain Zimmermann’s rough stretch

May 29, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

AP AP

If there was one guy on the roster coming out of spring training that gave the Nationals no cause for concern, it was Jordan Zimmermann. The right-hander had been a model of consistency and success for three seasons, and there was no reason to believe anything would be different this time around.

Well, two months in, something most definitely is different. Zimmermann has been anything but consistently successful, and Wednesday night’s performance was only the latest example. Pulled after allowing four runs (three earned) and eight hits in only five innings, he dug the Nationals into a 4-0 hole.

And this was nothing new for Zimmermann, who has now allowed at least four runs in four consecutive starts for the first time since he was a rookie in 2009.

“I thought I threw the ball pretty well except for the fourth inning (when all four runs scored),” he said. “I made some good pitches. I threw a fastball up about neck-high to (Garret) Jones and he somehow hit the ball (for an RBI single). I thought I made some good pitches that inning. Luck’s just not on my side right now, and these guys are squaring some balls up pretty hard. I have to keep grinding and some how make my way through this.”

“This” is the worst prolonged stretch by Zimmermann in quit some time. With the season one-third complete, he now sports a 4.07 ERA, having put 90 men on base in 59 2/3 innings. His 1.46 WHIP ranks 87th out of 101 qualifying starting pitchers in the major leagues so far this year. This from a guy who from 2011-13 ranked 11th in the majors in that category.

Zimmermann also isn’t giving manager Matt Williams the innings he expected. He has completed seven innings only twice in 11 starts this season. Compare that to 2013, when the right-hander completed seven innings 19 times in 32 starts.

So, what’s the explanation behind Zimmermann’s struggles? The good news is that he doesn’t appear to be dealing with any kind of injury. His fastball velocity remains right on target; he’s averaging 93.7 mph this season, 93.5 mph for his career. He has reported no discomfort.

“I’m not worried about him,” Williams said. “His velocity is good. His bullpens have been great. So I don’t see any trend, other than tonight he left a couple balls up and they took advantage of it.”

That, more than anything, appears to be the issue. Zimmermann’s command hasn’t been as sharp as it has been in the past, leading to plenty of hittable pitches. Opponents are now batting .307 against him, this after hitting a scant .247 off him over the previous three seasons.

Zimmermann suggested he’s been the victim of some bad luck, and there may be something to that. Opponents are hitting a whopping .369 against him on balls in play, an increase of 77 points over his career BABIP.

“My stuff’s there,” he said. “The fourth inning, (Derek) Dietrich led off with a fastball down and away for a base hit. Jones got a hit on a high fastball that was a foot out of the zone. (Casey) McGehee was a high fastball. I went back and looked at the film and I made some pretty good pitches. (Marcell) Ozuna was a curveball away. He’s usually pretty bad on curveballs, and he hits a rocket right back up the middle. I’m making good pitches where I want. They’re just squaring the ball up right now.”

It’s something opposing hitters haven’t done to Zimmermann much at all in his career. Now, he and the Nationals can only hope things revert back to form soon.

  1. wmlsays - May 29, 2014 at 10:37 AM

    Maybe, after three or so years, batters have figured him out. Or, like the rest of the Nats, he just hasn’t been lucky so far this year.

  2. scnatsfan - May 29, 2014 at 10:44 AM

    Seems to have that bad inning every game… as do virtually all the Nats starters. And it is usually very early in the game.

  3. 6ID20 - May 29, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    Zimmermann’s problem is the same as Desmond’s. They’re both pressing, trying too hard to come up big to justify turning down extensions last offseason. Desi finally is starting to relax into it and just play ball. Hopefully JZ will do the same soon.

  4. Hiram Hover - May 29, 2014 at 11:06 AM

    The stat heads like to talk about the three true outcomes – the things that are in the pitcher’s control and not reliant on his defense: walks, strikeouts, and homers.

    On those outcomes, JZimm is basically at his career norms:

    K/9: 7.54 vs 7.26 career
    BB/9: 1.96 vs 1.99
    HR/9: 0.75 vs 0.86

    These #s and not just the crazy high BABIP give me reason to think that a lot of it is bad luck.

  5. chaz11963 - May 29, 2014 at 11:27 AM

    HH- very true. If you like at ZNN’s numbers the past 3 years including 2014, they look very similar except for the BABIP which is through the roof. I think that tells you there is some luck involved and also that ZNN might not be hitting his spots exactly as he has in past. For instance, I noticed last night his velocity and movement was really good, but he was just missing at times and consistently getting behind in the counts.

  6. Faraz Shaikh - May 29, 2014 at 11:43 AM

    Man that was tough to watch last night.

  7. Faraz Shaikh - May 29, 2014 at 11:50 AM

    I am not worried about JZ. As everyone else has said, his underlying numbers are fine. Him going less innings now (haven’t checked pitch count) gives me hope that he can be the bulldog he was last three seasons down the stretch for us.

  8. Eugene in Oregon - May 29, 2014 at 11:56 AM

    HH and chaz: Exactly. I posted some similar numbers about Jordan Zimmermann the other day and also mentioned ‘luck’ (or lack thereof) as a contributing factor. This is where I believe — firmly — that baseball is game of random distributions. A .333 hitter doesn’t get one hit in every three ABs; he may get four hits in a row, then go hitless this next eight at bats. On any given play, fractions of any inch can turn a 2B into a ‘web gem’ or a ‘web gem’ into an inside the park HR. Given all the variables on a baseball field, even if you could conduct an experiment 1000 times in which the pitcher threw precisely the same pitch and the hitter made exactly the same swing on it, you’d still get scores — if not hundreds — of different results (some fractionally different, some hugely different). At the same time, of course, it’s not just random. Execution matters. You want to see your favorite players — whether the pitchers in a slump or the hitters finding it nearly impossible to get a hit with RISP — try harder, do better, and reach either their ‘normal’ level of production or ‘take it up a step’ in a ‘clutch’ situation. But when they ‘try harder’ they often end up messing up their swing or arm angle or approach. Don’t you love it?

  9. dryw4nats - May 29, 2014 at 11:58 AM

    I know his actual BB/9 is close to his career numbers, but does anyone know how his ball/strike ratio compares? I’ve always felt like (with no stats to back me up, just my personal impressions) in past years he would throw crazy amounts of strikes with very few balls–if he hit double digits in balls before the fourth inning, I’d ask my friends what was wrong with him. This year I feel like even when he gets the out, he has more ABs with high pitch counts. It also seems like (again with absolutely no data behind it) he’s working slower this year. Anyone else have thoughts or actual numbers on any of this?

    • adcwonk - May 29, 2014 at 12:12 PM

      Nope — that’s not it either.

      http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/z/zimmejo02-pitch.shtml

      His strike % is 67.7%, which matches his career, and just a touch down from last years 68.4%.

      The thing that really stands out is BABIP, which is .369 (vs. career .299) — this, presumably is a results of the number of players that hit line drives off of him: it is 32% vs a career 23% (and line drive BABIP for the league is, what .650? .700? I dunno).

      So, the only difference seems to be that when players do hit fair balls off of him, they are making better contact and hitting more LD’s than previously.

      And why is that? Beats me!

      • Hiram Hover - May 29, 2014 at 12:44 PM

        Thanks, Wonk.

        I’m curious about that 32% LD rate, which is indeed very high and would explain much of the change in BABIP. Fangraphs has his LD rate at 23.4%, a bit higher than his career rate of 21.3%.

      • dryw4nats - May 29, 2014 at 12:49 PM

        Thanks wonk! I’d far rather it be my misperception than JZ throwing more out of the strike zone!

      • therealjohnc - May 29, 2014 at 2:40 PM

        One problem with “batted ball profile” is that they aren’t scientific – the difference between a looping line drive and a short fly ball is essentially in the eye of the beholder. Which is why Fangraphs and B-R have fairly different profiles for the same data set.

        One problem that all the Nats pitchers are having, of course, is the Nats’ defense. I’m not talking about error rates, which are ridiculously overblown – the year that the O’s set the record for fewest errors in a season, for example, they were not noticeably better than the Nationals at turning balls in play into outs (Defensive Efficiency). A combination of players with more limited range and more lenient official scorers. That said, this year the Nats have taken a serious dive in Defensive Efficiency, to the point where they are 25th in MLB. A bit of a slip by the infield and an outfield that has given significant playing time to a declining Werth, a bad Hairston and other inexperienced players (Moore and Frandsen). Failure to get to makeable plays will drive a pitcher’s BABIP up regardless of the job that the pitcher is doing.

  10. adcwonk - May 29, 2014 at 12:00 PM

    JZimm’s comments may sound like excuses, and maybe they are, but they were indeed what I was thinking last night as that disastrous inning unfolded. Jones got a hit on a pitch that was way high and out of the strike zone. The pitch to right handed Azuma was indeed a curve down and away, and he hit it up the middle.

    I’m sure there’s more going on than my amateur eye can see — but it sure seemed to me that the above two hits were on pitches that almost nobody gets hits on, and I couldn’t see how it was JZ’s failure.

  11. veejh - May 29, 2014 at 12:14 PM

    Contract year approaching. Zimmermann is pressing. It’s costing us wins and costing him beaucoup dinero. . 307 BA against…that is getting pounded.

    • adcwonk - May 29, 2014 at 12:35 PM

      I just want to contrast this to those who claim that ALR’s numbers are *up* because it’s a contract year.

      I’m not buying either story.

      • NatsLady - May 29, 2014 at 12:58 PM

        Neither am I. I don’t know how much veteran players think about “contract year” in the heat of a contest. It may be that they make an extra effort to keep themselves in shape or do extra work in the cages, etc. But once the game starts, the game takes over.

      • scbilly - May 29, 2014 at 1:08 PM

        Different people react to the same potential stressor differently. ALR handled his last contract year in 2012 pretty well, while Zimmermann’s never been here before. I don’t know if it’s the right explanation for either of them, but it’s an explanation worth considering for both improvement and decline.

      • veejh - May 29, 2014 at 1:09 PM

        Maybe some players raise up, while others wilt under the pressure. Who knows. Blaming it on bad luck is total b.s. then.

      • Hiram Hover - May 29, 2014 at 1:17 PM

        Whatever the plausibility of the walk year” explanation in general, it doesn’t make sense in terms of JZimm.

        1. It’s not his walk year.

        B. Fans, coaches, and teammates have always talked about him as cool, unflappable, a bulldog, and the way he’s handled his contract situation seems perfectly consistent with that. Now, we’re supposed to think he’s wilting under the pressure of something that won’t happen for a year and a half?

        III. Did I mention – it’s not his walk year!

      • veejh - May 29, 2014 at 1:22 PM

        HH, they were just trying to sign a contract w JZimm, and having a good season would have given him even more leverage when they try to resign him again next offseason. I don’t buy what you are saying.

        ….and what I was originally saying is just a theory. No one really knows why he’s getting shelled.

      • veejh - May 29, 2014 at 1:25 PM

        It’s not out of the question that JZimm thinking about dollars vaporizing is having some kind of effect on his pitching.

      • adcwonk - May 29, 2014 at 1:26 PM

        It’s not out of the question that JZimm thinking about dollars vaporizing is having some kind of effect on his pitching….

        I think more of them are thinking: “this team has a short window to compete for a Championship, and we need to grab it now”

      • Hiram Hover - May 29, 2014 at 3:52 PM

        It’s not out of the question that JZimm thinking about dollars vaporizing is having some kind of effect

        Yes – in the sense that nothing is out of the question, so long as there is one person willing to ask the question.

  12. manassasnatsfan - May 29, 2014 at 12:31 PM

    I am not sure, but it seems his fast ball has had less movement and staying straighter than las t year.

  13. Faraz Shaikh - May 29, 2014 at 12:41 PM

    Nats’ Starters Luck

    • adcwonk - May 29, 2014 at 1:30 PM

      How can that be?

      (excluding Treinan,,,)

      For the Nats starters, Strasburg has the best ERA, best K/IP, best FIP, best HR/IP, and highest WAR. (And tied in wins).

      But according to many here he’s a weak-willed head case!

      Are you confusing things with facts?

      • Faraz Shaikh - May 29, 2014 at 2:55 PM

        I know, right? Seriously, people are too harsh on Strasburg because all the hype everyone else has made about him. He never said that he could walk on water.

        Forget among our starters, he is best in either league for K/9. He is fifth best in NL for WAR, 3rd best for FIP, 2nd in total Ks. Last five times out of six starts, he has gone 7 innings. two times, he did not touch even 100 pitches so he possibly could have gone longer.

  14. NatsLady - May 29, 2014 at 1:15 PM

    Every team, no matter how well-constructed, talented, or favored for the postseason, goes through these stretches. The Tigers have lost 8 of 10, “something” is not quite right with Verlander and Joe Nathan has blown FOUR saves to date. They haven’t solved their shortstop problem, nor their center field problem, and Robbie Ray is back in the minors.

    I think that a team is like a family. When members leave or return there is a period of adjustment, both on the part of the player and of the team “absorbing” the returnee back into its day-to-day existence. That happened last year, where it took way too long.

    I think this applies especially on defense where you have to be super-aware of each player’s tendencies and abilities–Frandsen was just not ready for Werth’s throw, Danny would have been. But it also applies in the lineup, where you need to have an idea what you can expect from the guy up before you and after you.

    • Sonny G 10 - May 29, 2014 at 8:30 PM

      I think you are spot on NatsLady. You have very good insight.

  15. veejh - May 29, 2014 at 1:16 PM

    What JZimm kept saying throughout the offseason as contract negotiations went no where is ringing in my head…..

    “I just want fair market value”

    Be careful what you wish for.

    • letswin3 - May 29, 2014 at 2:07 PM

      I’ve been thinking those same thoughts. I like the guy, but who knows what will happen (both in terms of performance and health) between now and the end of his contract. I’m nowhere close to thinking that he’s lost it, but consummating an extension now is probably less that prudent. The truth of it is that there are four big contract renegotiations closing in on the Nats, and they probably can’t afford all 4 …. so, just maybe, one of those players could become less of a question mark by then. I’m certainly not hoping for decreased performance or health issues for any of them, but why make a decision before it’s necessary?

  16. NatsLady - May 29, 2014 at 1:26 PM

    Also, I think there is less “revenge” factor than fans assume. Tommy Milone and Derek Norris weren’t out to “get” their former team which in some way betrayed them. If they were, why did they have such good outings after that, against other teams that didn’t trade them??? The memory of their time with the Nats is already vague.

    Nathan Karns said he was grateful to the Nats for “fixing” him and giving him a chance, even if it was with another team. But once he put on a Rays uni, he’s a Ray–speaking of which, did Joe Madden forget how to manage? Do the Rays suddenly have a terrible front office, after all these years? No. They lost Matt Moore. “Something” is amiss with David Price, etc. etc.

    There are exceptions, of course. Frandsen definitely bears a grudge against the Phillies. Fister was over-amped in his debut in Oakland. But on the whole, I disregard a lot of this “mental” stuff and go by injuries, talent and luck to project future performance. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the mental aspect exists, any more than that I don’t think clubhouse chemistry exists. They do.

    But if the Nats ran off 25 of 35 you’d be amazed at the genius of Matty and Mike. The clubhouse would be “fun,” and the guys would have shown the “mental” toughness to get out of a rough patch.

    • chaz11963 - May 29, 2014 at 1:29 PM

      Totally agree NL.

    • adcwonk - May 29, 2014 at 1:35 PM

      Well put, NL!

      +1000

      Two other things worth remembering:

      1. Boswell’s age old axiom bears repeating: a team is never as bad as it looks during a losing streak, and never as good as they seem during a winning streak.

      2. Despite the “terrible performance” — for some “odd” reason, http://www.baseballprospectus.com/odds/ has the Nats pretty much tied with the Braves for best team in the NE East. At this point, they project the Braves to win 84.2 games, and the Nats to win 84 games. (And, Miami, 78).

      I have no idea how they do their projections, and I don’t ever care that much. The point is that objective observers think that the Nats are better than they are performing now, and will perform better in the future. I.e., this is not just a dream of fans wearing rose-covered glasses

      • adcwonk - May 29, 2014 at 2:59 PM

        (my comment of +1000 was for your 1:15 comment)

  17. stoatva - May 29, 2014 at 1:39 PM

    No baseball Thursday in the rain. Feels like Yim Kippur in natstown.

    • stoatva - May 29, 2014 at 1:40 PM

      Yim? Yom!

      • adcwonk - May 29, 2014 at 2:59 PM

        ;-)

        MOT, too?

    • Eugene in Oregon - May 29, 2014 at 2:28 PM

      Thanks. I subscribe to the NYT digital edition, but not the WashPost. So I can only read the WashPost articles that are linked-to.

  18. knoxvillenat - May 29, 2014 at 2:14 PM

    Something I have been thinking about while watching Zimmermann pitch these last few starts, could he possibly be tipping his pitches? Given the higher than historical BABIP and LD ratio I’m thinking that hitters are getting better wood on the ball if they have an idea of what Jordan is throwing.

    • Eugene in Oregon - May 29, 2014 at 2:26 PM

      Fair question, but wouldn’t you imagine that if other teams were picking up on it the Nats would be too?

    • David Proctor - May 29, 2014 at 2:59 PM

      FP was strongly implying that the Marlins “knew what was coming” last night. They’ve been accused of stealing signs already, but I have my doubts.

      • Eugene in Oregon - May 29, 2014 at 5:55 PM

        Stealing signs at home is easier than doing so on the road, no?

    • natsguy - May 29, 2014 at 3:13 PM

      I have been thinking that about both him and Strasburg.

Archives

NL EAST STANDINGS

W L GB
x-WASHINGTON 91 64 --
ATLANTA 76 79 15.0
NEW YORK 76 80 15.5
MIAMI 74 81 17.0
PHILADELPHIA 71 85 20.5
x-Clinched NL East title
Through Sunday's games

NL PLAYOFFS STANDINGS

W L GB WCGB
x-WASHINGTON (4) 91 64 --
y-LOS ANGELES 89 67 2.5
y-ST. LOUIS 87 68 4.0
-------------------------
SAN FRANCISCO 84 71 7.0 --
PITTSBURGH 84 71 7.0 --
MILWAUKEE 80 76 11.5 4.5
x-Clinched division title
y-Clinched playoff berth
Through Sunday's early games

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