December 2, 2015
Free Agent Roulette: Jordan Zimmermann
Today's edition of Raising Aces marks the start of a new series, in which we examine the free agent pitchers of this offseason to get a better grasp on how each player might evolve through the terms of his new contract. There is an impressive top end to this winter's class of free agent pitchers, including such impact players as David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, and the recently inked Jordan Zimmermann; but there is also plenty of intrigue as we scan down the list to pitchers such as $36 million man J.A. Happ. There is a lot of money at stake, despite the relative fragility of pitchers in the modern era, and whether the massive contracts handed out to pitchers this offseason will carry value into the future is highly dependent on whether the veteran arms can endure for the long haul. The clubs are doing their homework on these pitchers, so let's do ours, beginning with the newest member of the $100 million club.
The Player: Jordan Zimmermann
The Terms: Detroit Tigers for 5 years, $110 million
The value of the contract listed above reflects the baseline deal, but Zimmermann has the opportunity to tack on a couple more million shekels if he performs exceptionally well and receives certain accolades over the life of the contract. He offers the stuff and moxie of a true ace, assuming the version of Zimmermann that shows up to Tigers camp is a reasonable facsimile of the iteration that we have seen over the past five years. Will he earn his paycheck?
The numbers are certainly impressive, with a career K:BB ratio better than 4 despite an unabashed approach emphasizing weak contact and efficient pitch counts over gaudy strikeout totals. This efficiency has helped Zimm to pitch 195 or more innings in each of the past four seasons despite his never having exceeded 118 pitches in any one ballgame The right-hander had kept his ERA at or under 3.25 for four straight seasons, but his 2015 ERA of 3.66 was the highest single-season mark that he has posted since he went under the knife for Tommy John surgery in 2009. He also allowed the worst hit and home run rates of his past five campaigns.
He enjoyed a K spike to 23 percent in 2014 but has otherwise remained under the 20 percent threshold for the past five seasons; his 19.7 percent strikeout frequency of 2015 was the second-best season-long K rate of that span. Walks often take awhile to stabilize following major elbow surgery, but Zimmermann posted a sub-5 percent rate of free passes in his first year back and has remained stringent with the walks ever since.
Zimmermann's career platoon split covers 57 points of OPS that favor left-handed batters, but such a mark is near league average for pitchers when comparing their performance against like-sided and opposite-handed bats. His proclivity for contact leaves the right-hander vulnerable to the vagaries of balls in play, yet prior to last season he had posted stable rates of hits and home runs allowed.
Zimmermann's velocity was down by more than a full tick last season, an element which gains intrigue due to his remarkable consistency in the pitch speed department over the previous four seasons. The changeup has long been an afterthought in his repertoire, only making an appearance against left-handed bats as a means to keep them honest, but he essentially scrapped the pitch in 2015. In its stead were extra curveballs and sliders, and though each pitch stays below the 30 percent threshold that often invokes fear in the saber-inclined, the fact that he threw more than 37 percent combined breaking balls last season—the highest such frequency of his career—is potential cause for concern.
Mechanics Report Card
Zimmermann has one of the most mechanically efficient deliveries in the game, with a rare blend of power and stability that reflects his tremendous athleticism. He has excellent balance in all three planes that he maintains through a ferocious charge to the plate, such that his summed scores for balance and momentum are possibly the highest in the majors (though his pace was a bit softer in 2015). The efficiency has remained strong over the past several years, displaying the consistency and long-term repetition that, in a vacuum, encourages optimism regarding his ability to hold up for the next five years. However, there are a few caveats, and the fact that his rock-solid efficiency took an unexpected turn for the worse last season is the first instigator of raised eyebrows.
Zimm is coming off of a season in which his delivery fell a bit off track when compared to previous years. His timing wasn't quite as sharp, the torque was inconsistent, and the resulting combination of a tick less velocity and slightly compromised command were likely tied to his escalated rates of hits and homers allowed. His torque involves minimal load with the upper half, relying instead on an egregious delay to his trigger after foot strike as his hips lead a whirlwind of rotation. His hip-shoulder separation is fueled by timing, with hips that rotate while the upper half waits to fire.
That excessive delay brings forward another caveat, one related to injury risk specifically to his throwing elbow. I often say that a delayed trigger is a double-edged sword, in the sense that some delay is a positive that increases torque, but delay too long and the pitcher is at risk for elbow drag. Elbow drag occurs when a pitcher's elbow is behind the shoulder line at maximum external rotation (the “arm-cocking” phase), which happens when the upper half starts too late in the kinetic sequence for the throwing arm to catch up. It can be encouraged by an excessively delayed trigger (like that of Zimmermann), a heavy scapular load and/or the tendency for a pitcher to raise his elbows above the shoulder line (the “inverted W”). Zimm doesn't carry the inverted W, but he does show some scapular loading in addition to one of the largest delays to his trigger that one will see, and though elbow drag can be an aspect that shows up only on certain throws, Zimmermann experiences the drag on most offerings due to the consistency of his late trigger.
The Verdict: Buyer Beware
If this determination were made based on mechanical efficiency alone, then Zimmermann would be one the safest gambles among this free agent class. But the facts that A) he carries a major precursor to elbow injury, B) his throwing elbow has already been compromised with a busted UCL once in his career, and C) his stuff and mechanics took a hit last season conspire to launch his risk factor into the stratosphere. The Tigers are paying for his age 30-to-34 seasons with a contract that's heavily backloaded, but with an aging core (Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Victor Martinez) and a shrinking window of contention Detroit is likely to be far more interested in the first couple years of this deal than the back half. Zimm should be effective as long as he's on the mound and the Tigers will be gunning for glory in 2016-17, but last season's indicators magnify the risk of this deal holding water even in the short term.