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February 13, 2013
Mock Hearing: Jordan Zimmermann
It's salary arbitration season in Major League Baseball, and here at Baseball Prospectus we're holding mock hearings, arguing for or against the actual team/player filing figures before a three-person panel of certified arbitrators. We've selected 10 of this winter's most intriguing, highest-dollar cases to cover in depth over the first two weeks of February (regardless of whether the players' real-life cases remain unsettled). After each side's opening argument and rebuttal/summation below, we'll give you a chance to vote on what you think the result should be before seeing the panel's decision. For more on the arbitration process, read the series intro by Atlanta Braves Assistant GM John Coppolella, listen to his appearance on Episode 35 of Up and In, or check out the BP Basics introduction to arbitration.
In Part Eight of this 10-part series, we'll tackle Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, who is seeking $5.8 million and has been offered $4.6 million. Zimmermann and the Nationals have yet to reach an agreement. (*Update* Zimmermann and the Nationals avoided arbitration and settled for $5.35 million after this piece was published.)
The complete procedure for salary arbitration is available in the Basic Agreement.
In 2012, Jordan Zimmermann established himself as one of the best young starting pitchers in the game, a key piece of the top pitching staff in the National League. At just 26 years old, he joined Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez in anchoring one of baseball’s best young starting rotations and leading the Nationals to the postseason. Zimmermann is deserving of his $5.8 million salary request in light of his contribution to the team’s division title, his production both in 2012 and for his career, and his performance compared to pitchers in his service class.
The Nationals pitching staff led the NL in ERA in 2012 with a mark of 3.33, more than a half a run below the league average of 3.95. Washington starting pitchers also ranked fifth in baseball with 97 quality starts (outings of at least six innings pitched and no more than three earned runs). Zimmermann was a team leader in each of these important categories, ranking second in the rotation in ERA (2.94) and first in quality starts with 24. In fact, among the 88 qualifying starting pitchers in the majors, Zimmermann ranked highly in several statistical categories, as the following chart shows.
Zimmermann’s marks for starts, quality starts, and ERA were career highs, as were his 12 victories and 195.7 innings pitched. He set a team record by pitching at least six innings in each of his first 21 outings of the season, a streak that matched San Francisco’s Ryan Vogelsong and Detroit’s Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander for the longest in baseball in 2012. His six-game winning streak (from June 27 to August 9) tied Strasburg for the team’s longest of the season, and in only one start did he allow more than four earned runs.
In July, Zimmermann won the NL Pitcher of the Month award, allowing just four earned runs in 37 innings. In his six July starts, he posted a 4-0 record and led the major leagues with a dominant 0.97 ERA. He tied for the NL lead in victories and led the league in fewest walks and hits allowed per inning with a WHIP of 0.84. He was the third Nationals pitcher to receive the monthly honor in 2012, following Strasburg (April) and Gonzalez (May). He capped his season by starting Game Two of the NL Division Series for Washington, then pitching in with a crucial relief appearance in Game Four.
Zimmermann’s durability and consistency were all the more impressive because 2012 marked his first season pitching without innings limits put in place for 2011, his first full campaign after 2009 ligament replacement surgeron his right elbow. Zimmermann’s 2012 average fastball velocity of 93.9—sixth-highest among major-league starters—indicates that his arm is healthy. And though control often presents difficulty for pitchers returning from surgery, Zimmermann’s has been excellent. In the last two seasons, he walked just 74 hitters in 357 innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked seventh in the NL in that period, and his 3.05 ERA in 2011-12 was 12th in baseball. Overall, since returning from surgery, Zimmerman has posted a 21-21 record with a 3.20 ERA in 65 starts. The Nationals have a winning percentage of .569 (37-28) in his starts during that stretch.
Zimmermann’s 2011 season featured a streak of 11 consecutive quality starts and an outstanding 3.18 ERA, which ranked 10th in the league. He did not pitch in September, as the Nationals limited him to 161 innings as a precaution in his first full season after surgery. Nevertheless, Washington manager Davey Johnson told SB Nation he thought “Zimmermann was arguably my best pitcher” in 2011 and noted that his successful recovery served as a template for Strasburg, who had the same ligament-replacement surgery in late 2011.
In addition, Zimmermann is one of the better hitting pitchers in the game, with three extra-base hits (a home run and two doubles) in 2012. His offensive statistics ranked highly among the 82 pitchers with 30 or more plate appearances in 2012, as the following chart illustrates.
Moreover, only four other pitchers struck out less often than Zimmermann, who went down swinging in just 19.7 percent of his plate appearances.
Zimmerman’s $5.8 million request is in line with recent salaries for starting pitchers with three-plus years of service who are second-time arbitration-eligibles. Specifically, it is commensurate with Matt Garza’s $5.95 million salary for 2010, a platform season that did not measure up to Zimmermann’s in 2012.
Zimmermann posted an ERA nearly a full run better than Garza’s, and he allowed 10 fewer home runs and made six more quality starts. The Baseball Prospectus valuation tool, Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP)—measuring the number of wins the pitcher contributed above what a freely available pitcher would have provided—gives Zimmermann’s platform year a decided advantage. Yet his request of $5.8 million is $150,000 less than Garza’s 2011 salary of $5.95 million.
Zimmerman’s production also approaches that of Gio Gonzalez, who signed a multi-year contract extension with the Nationals a year ago after being acquired in a trade from Oakland.
Though Gonzalez won more decisions, he enjoyed considerably more run support. Washington scored an average of 5.4 runs in his starts. Only six pitchers in baseball received more. Zimmermann, on the other hand, received an average of 4.9 runs of support in his starts (15th in the majors), nearly half a run less. In fact, Baseball Prospectus’ WARP places nearly identical values on Gonzalez and Zimmermann. Gonzalez’s extension will pay him $6.35 million in 2013, $1.15 million more than the $5.2 million midpoint in this case. With Zimmermann healthy and his innings no longer limited, he has proven to be just as productive as both Gonzalez and Garza. An award of $5.8 million for Zimmermann would bring his salary into line with his peers. —Jeff Euston
We'd like to begin by saying that Jordan Zimmermann is a big part of the Nationals’ success—not only last year, which saw the Nats reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history, but going forward. He's a very talented right-hander with the chance to achieve much success in this game. With that said, we feel our submission of $4.6 million is fairer compensation than his submission of $5.8 million based on his lengthy injury history and track record of performance.
Let's address the injury history first. Zimmermann has 670 days of service time, or three years and 154 days (almost four years). Of those, more than 270, or about 41 percent of the sum, was accumulated on the disabled list. No matter how talented a player is, no matter how clutch, no matter how enthusiastic, a player on the disabled list cannot and will not help his team win ballgames. Zimmermann has spent a considerable amount of his big-league stay enduring and recovering from surgery, and not helping the Nationals win games.
Jordan Zimmermann's Injury History
In graphical form:
Jordan Zimmerman’s Service Time Breakdown, Career
Zimmermann is a Super Two player. That puts him in a special class. Yet even within this special class, Zimmermann's submission seems overzealous. Consider Matt Garza, another talented right-handed starter and Super Two player. Garza made $5.9 million in his second year of arbitration. When you stack up the two, as we do below, a few things jump out at you.
Year Prior to Platform Year
Two Years Prior to Platform Year
The first is that Zimmermann has an advantage in ERA and quality start rate. Beyond that, Garza won nearly twice as many games and pitched nearly 250 additional innings. Let's put that number into perspective. How many innings is 250, really? Consider this: Last season, Justin Verlander led the league with 238 innings pitched. Only two others topped 230 innings, and two more topped 220 innings. These were all frontline pitchers, which means that Zimmermann accumulated over a full season’s worth of innings less than Garza did. Is that difference worth just $0.1 million, as Zimmermann's offer would suggest? Or is it worth closer to $1.2 million?
We also believe the case of Anibal Sanchez supports our claim. Sanchez was not a Super Two player, and so his earning potential in his platform year was less than Zimmermann's. As a result, he made $1.25 million. Nevertheless, the two are comparable for a few reasons. One is that Sanchez had accumulated 38 percent of his service time on the disabled list and had missed further time in the minors. The two also stack up relatively closely through our same four statistical categories, as Sanchez won a similar amount of games despite pitching about 200 fewer innings than Zimmermann.
Year Prior to Platform Year
Two Years Prior to Platform Year
Zimmermann is still a better pitcher than Sanchez was, and he had the luxury of a previous year of arbitration. As a result, Zimmermann deserves a higher payout than Sanchez. We're offering nearly four times what Sanchez made, while Zimmerman is asking for closer to five times that total. But based on the Garza comparison, the $4.6 million submission is an offer more in line with the economies of the game. —R.J. Anderson
Zimmermann is a frontline pitcher who has had one injury, not a long history of nagging physical problems. Before his surgery, he had one start pushed back three days because of elbow soreness. His ligament replacement surgery was performed on August 18, 2009, and by August 26, 2010, he was back on the mound in Washington. He has not missed a start due to injury since.
As a precaution, the Nationals limited Zimmermann’s pitch count during his 2010 and 2011 starts, reducing how deep into each game he could pitch. The club also capped his season-long innings total for 2011. After he passed the 160-inning mark in late August, the club voluntarily shut him down for the year, a decision that cost him five starts and at least 30 innings. He was not injured, but Zimmermann accepted this conservative approach despite the fact it hurt his future earning potential.
Incidentally, by counting spring training, the club overstates the percentage of service time Zimmermann earned while on the disabled list. In fact, Zimmermann was on the DL for just 222 regular-season calendar days, or 33 percent of his career service time.
Most importantly, Zimmermann was so effective in the innings he did pitch that his value exceeded that of starters like Garza who racked up higher raw innings totals. In other words, the quality of Zimmermann’s innings trump the quantity provided by others. The best illustrations of this are his platform and career totals for ERA, quality start percentage, and the Wins Above Replacement Player valuation metric. In each category, Zimmermann significantly outperforms the pitchers offered by the Nationals as comparables.
A pitcher’s innings totals, while important, are not the only factor in determining his value. It’s the quality of performance that distinguishes a frontline pitcher from a reliable “innings eater,” both on the field and in the market. Since his return in 2010, Zimmermann has provided both quality and quantity, both high-level production and consistency. His performance merits a salary award of $5.8 million. —Jeff Euston
We have a few points to offer in response.
First, although we inadvertently rebutted the Garza comparison in our own presentation, we'd like to raise the point again: Garza, whom the Zimmermann team is using as a comparison, had almost 250 more innings through 2010 than Zimmermann does. This process doesn't just consider the platform year, but the player's entire body of work. Under such circumstances, it's hard to take any claim that says both contributed to their teams equally seriously.
Second, it's important to note that while Zimmermann is an outstanding young pitcher, he had the benefit of a great defense behind him in 2012. Washington's defense ranked fifth in the majors in defensive efficiency, a measure of the percentage of balls put in play by opposing batters that a team converts into outs. Not only that, but Adam LaRoche, the Nationals’ first baseman, won the National League Gold Glove award, and Ryan Zimmerman, the team’s third baseman, is a previous winner of the award. Meanwhile, six of Washington's fielders received votes at their positions for the Fielding Bible awards. Zimmermann is a good pitcher, but he had an unusual amount of defensive support.
Third, Gonzalez's contract is a questionable reference point since he signed it before the 2012 season, so his performance after the extension has little impact on his salary during the life of the contract.
In light of Zimmermann's injury history and performance, the team believes its offer of $4.6 million a fairer compensation for Zimmermann than the player's submission of $5.8 million. —R.J. Anderson
Before scrolling down to read the three-person panel’s decision, record your own decision here:
Burt Fendelman is an attorney with more than 45 years of experience, initially in corporate finance and securities laws working as inside counsel for several major securities brokerage firms. He has performed as an arbitrator for FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), the American Arbitration Association, and currently as an arbitrator and mediator for the New York County Lawyers Association in fee dispute-related matters. He is presently a self-described “work in progress”, working with clients in areas related to art and antiques. He attended Washington University in St. Louis and NYU Graduate School of Tax Law, and he now lives in Manhattan.
Doris Lindbergh is a retired lawyer who is an arbitrator with FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) and its predecessor forums, the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) and the New York Stock Exchange. She also arbitrates for the National Futures Association (NFA). She attended Washington University School of Law and has a Master of Arts from Fordham University. Her employment history includes stints at Wall Street investment banks and, most recently, the MTA New York City Transit Authority, but her most challenging assignment was raising a future Editor-in-Chief of Baseball Prospectus.
David Marcus is a retired lawyer and serves as an arbitrator with the Financial Advisory Regulatory Authority (FINRA). He lives in Metuchen, New Jersey. He attended Columbia College and Yale Law School, after which he served as an enforcement attorney with the SEC. His subsequent career includes working for the New York Stock Exchange heading its regulatory division, and working for several broker-dealers as a regulatory attorney or General Counsel.
2-1 in favor of the Player
Cy Young voters like low ERAs, high winning percentages and, just as importantly, innings, the active ingredient that makes the first two stats (more) meaningful. But they don’t like Jordan Zimmermann, judging by 2012. From 2006-12, there were 42 pitcher-seasons with an ERA no higher than 3.00, a winning percentage no lower than .600, and at least 190 innings pitched. In 40 of those seasons, the pitcher responsible finished no lower than (and usually much higher than) ninth in his league’s Cy Young voting. Last season, Zimmermann pitched (for a playoff team) to a 2.94 ERA in 195 2/3 innings, winning 12 out of 20 decisions, without receiving a single Cy Young vote.
The only other pitcher to do the same in the last several seasons is Matt Cain, who’s a lot like Zimmermann in some other respects. Both are right-handers with similar heights and builds. Both throw the same assortment of five pitches at roughly similar rates (Zimmermann uses his changeup more often). Both throw hard with excellent control, but neither gets many strikeouts. Both Cain in 2009 and Zimmermann in 2012 had modest win totals and were overshadowed by other pitchers on their own staffs—in Cain’s case, Tim Lincecum, who won the Cy Young that season, and in Zimmermann’s, Gio Gonzalez (who finished third) and Stephen Strasburg.
Zimmermann’s 2012 was not only the more valuable season—his WARP would have led 22 teams' pitching staffs—but the more overlooked. Unlike Cain in 2009, he wasn’t even an All-Star, despite a 2.61 ERA in 110 1/3 first-half innings. In part, that’s a product of the pitch-to-contact profile, which tends to attract less attention. But Cain has gotten a lot more love from the voters in recent seasons without drastically altering his approach. It’s helped that his team has won two World Series, that he pitched a perfect game, and that Lincecum isn’t what he once was. But it’s also a reflection of the fact that he’s solidified his status as one of baseball’s most prolific pitchers, reaching or blowing by the 200-inning mark in six straight seasons.
Zimmermann has consciously forsaken his rookie-season strikeout totals, so in order to earn the same kind of acclaim Cain has, he’ll have to demonstrate the same sort of durability. As Jeff observed above, Zimmermann has proven that he can pitch post-Tommy John with better velocity and control than he had before the surgery. What he hasn’t yet shown is Cain’s ability to go deep into games.
To look at most of his stats, you’d think Zimmermann would have topped 200 innings with ease. Since 2000—the first season for which Baseball-Reference tracks all of these stats—only one other pitcher (Zimmermann's walk-prone, low-BABIP-aided teammate Gio Gonzalez) has made as many starts, thrown as many pitches per start, allowed baserunners at as low a rate, and failed to get to 200. Zimmermann allowed fewer baserunners per inning than 16 starters who did make it to 200 last season. He got ahead in the count, starting hitters off with a strike nearly 70 percent of the time—more often than any qualified pitcher aside from Cliff Lee. Nor did he nibble after going up in the count: among the 51 starters who threw at least 3000 pitches last season, only Lee and Clayton Richard threw a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone. He threw 96.5 pitches per start, only slightly below the 98.3 average among non-Rockies starters who pitched at least 100 innings (Jeff Francis, on an artificially limited pitch count, averaged 79.4).
So Zimmermann’s not falling behind, he’s not nibbling, and he’s not throwing an extraordinarily low number of pitches per start. Yet out of 88 qualified starters, Zimmermann threw only the 47th-fewest pitches per inning, despite allowing baserunners at the 20th-lowest rate. The problem? Zimmermann averaged 3.84 pitches per plate appearance, 33rd-most out of 88 qualifiers. He’s getting ahead, but it’s taking him too long to finish off hitters.
Zimmermann has the “pitch to contact” part down—probably to strikeout-averse pitching coach Steve McCatty's delight*—but he’s still struggling to stay in the game. And it might be because he’s taken pitching to contact too far.
*McCatty's stance on strikeouts: "It's an arbitration stat." Looks like Zimmermann can win mock arbitrations without them.
There’s some evidence to suggest that in his quest to induce contact, Zimmermann has been throwing both too many strikes and too many fastballs. Only three qualified starters threw a higher percentage of four-seamers than Zimmermann’s 61 percent last season. To be fair, one of those pitchers was Clayton Kershaw, who seems to be doing okay. But Kershaw’s four-seamer isn’t thrown in the zone as often, and it has the most vertical movement among the 52 starters who threw the pitch 1000 times last season. Zimmermann’s has the 11th-least.
Among the 48 starters who threw at least 3000 pitches of any type last season, Zimmermann’s rate of whiffs per swing also ranked 11th-lowest. His rate of fouls per swing, though? Third-highest. Since Zimmermann throws his heater so often, it doesn’t move that much, and it’s always around the zone, hitters can keep fouling it off until his pitch count climbs high enough to knock him out of the game. Even without particularly trying to, Zimmermann is capable of getting hitters to chase: they swung at 32.2 percent of his pitches outside the zone last season, compared to the league average of 29.3 percent. Imagine if he tried to a little more often. It might seems backwards, but throwing more balls—and more breaking balls—might be the best way for Zimmermann to last longer in games.
In 2009, Cain threw his four-seamer 58 percent of the time; last season, he threw it only 48 percent of the time. In 2009, he threw strikes 53.2 percent of the time; last season, he threw them only 51.6 percent of the time. He’s a better pitcher because of it. The secret to Cy Young votes for Zimmermann, then, might be simple: be even more like Matt Cain. —Ben Lindbergh
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson