What are the Tigers getting in Jordan Zimmermann?

After a deeply disappointing 2015, the Detroit Tigers have clearly concluded that what’s needed is roster rehab – a reloading, if you will, not a rebuilding.

Thus far, they’ve fortified the bullpen by dealing for Francisco Rodriguez and they’ve gone and spent $110 million on Jordan Zimmermann, one of the better starting pitchers in the game, but a guy coming off a year where he set or approached career worsts in all sorts of metrics.

Naturally, that made me wonder – just what kind of arm have the Tigers bought themselves?

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Player A is Zack Greinke; B is Zimmermann. So we can see, just by cursory glance, that over the past five years, including 2015, Zimmermann has been pretty darn Greinke-ish on the mound. He hasn’t been completely equivalent, but close.

Zimmermann’s 2014 was strong enough to earn him a fifth-place finish in Cy Young consideration. His 2015 form was inferior in every category, and I’m sure countless hours were spent trying to divine whether this was a “down” blip, or a sign of something more ominous going forward. Digging in to the morass:

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Player A was Zimmermann in 2014, Player B was the 2015 version of the same 6-foot-2, 225-pound tree trunk of a pitcher.

First, I was shocked to see those identical batting average on balls in play (BABIP) figures from both seasons. I thought for sure his 2015 number would be higher, but that’s just not the case. Neither his 2014 nor 2015 numbers are far off from his career .293 BABIP.

The soaring home-run rate and the near-full run difference in FIP also stood out in a bad way.

Given the surge in homers yielded (basically half a home run per nine innings difference) I thought for sure I would find that Zimmermann’s fly-ball rates were way off his career mark — a theory I also disproved quickly. In fact, he was a better ground-ball pitcher in 2015 than in 2014, and his fly-ball rate was only marginally higher (36.2 percent versus 35.9 percent the prior year. Up, but not much.)

In nearly every area of his 2015 season, his peripheral numbers were either spot on or slightly above his career marks.

Meanwhile, his 2.66 FIP from 2014 is way better than any number he’s ever posted; his career mark is 3.40. He also struck out more and walked fewer people than he ever had, reflected in that gaudy K/BB ratio — another number he’s never approached. (Meanwhile, he posted a 4.21 rate in 2015, against a career mark of 4.09.)

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about Zimmermann’s declining velocity. And it’s true; his velocity was indeed down in 2015. But down from what?

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He’s never been a power pitcher; he’s always been a command-first, location-first guy. And though it’s never good to see a decline in velocity, if I may be a contrarian here, in Zimmermann’s case it seems less important than it might otherwise be. What would concern me more than the raw fastball velocities is that it means the differential between his his fastball and his off-speed stuff is also shrinking, which makes both pitches (the fastball and the off-speed stuff) more hittable.

Talk of a “down” year for Zimmermann needs a healthy dose of context. Taking a look over the past three seasons, including 2015, we arrive at a player who:

  • Ranks 11th overall in innings pitched, which speaks to his durability.
  • Has the 12th best WHIP (1.12).
  • Has a strikeout-to-walk rate nearly a full punch-out better than Jon Lester (4.69 for Zimmermann to 3.73 for Lester).
  • In fact, his K/BB rate over this span is essentially the same (!) as teammate Stephen Strasburg (4.70 for Strasburg, 4.69 for Zimmermann).
  • He’s generated 12.0 WAR, that’s good for 13th overall, more than Jake Arrieta, Justin Verlander, and even 0.8 wins better than Strasburg.

The list could go on, but in essentially every category, he’s either Top 10 or barely outside that arbitrary (but instructive) box.

All I can really conclude about Zimmermann’s 2015 is that he had a career-best year in 2014, and just wasn’t able to repeat it. Regression to the mean is an unsentimental, cruel beast.

Obviously, Detroit has concluded that even if he never repeats his Cy Young-caliber 2014, and even if the transition to the American League ticks his numbers up another notch, “JZ” is still a good gamble as a rotation-deepening, consistently good, and sometimes dominating force.

There are plenty of questions about the wisdom of signing a 29-year-old pitcher who has Tommy John surgery in his medical file. As far as I can tell, it’s an area full of unknown unknowns.

One thing is known, though: more pitchers in general, and therefore more of the best pitchers, are having the procedure and coming back in top form. And that means surgically repaired arms as impact, mega-contract, mega-deal acquisitions are here to stay.

The NL East, just on its own, is littered with top pitching talent who are also Tommy John alumni — see: Strasburg, Jose FernandezMatt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler.

It will be fascinating to watch the evolution of how a Tommy John “red flag” affects pitcher value, if it does at all.

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