A lot of hype surrounds Joel Zumaya, and for good reason: he could be a major cog in the Tiger's bullpen this year. A lot of this hype also comes from his sensational rookie campaign in 2006. People are looking for a repeat. Zumaya will have to work hard to give it to them.
Fortunately for Tigers fans, Zumaya appears to not have done any permanent damage to himself despite the multitude of injuries he has sustained over the past two years. This is the guy who missed time due to hurting his wrist playing Guitar Hero. A more serious injury was when he was helping his father during the California wild fires and had a heavy box fall on his shoulder, separating it. That could have been a disaster.
Despite that he can still throw the wicked fastball that earned him the nickname "Zoom Zoom." When I first heard in 2007 that he had separated his shoulder I feared the worst. I immediately thought of the once great Tiger prospect Matt Anderson. He was the fireballer who could throw 100+ mph fastballs, but managed to hurt himself by throwing an octopus at a Red Wings game. End result: he never got past the low 90's ever again, and because of that his career perished.
I bring this up because, prior to the injury, Matt Anderson had a very gifted arm. He could bring the heat and make hitters look foolish. He could throw a very good fastball, but he never learned how to pitch.
There is a big difference between the two. 2006 saw Joel Zumaya repeatedly blow big fastballs past guys. For relief pitchers he was among the American League leaders in strikeouts. He had a 1.94 ERA. He stifled batters with a .187 batting average against him. He also walked 42 batters in 83.1 innings.
He threw a great fastball and regularly blew guys away. But he hadn't learned how to pitch yet. How fortunate he was that the shoulder injury didn't sap his velocity, like it did to Matt Anderson.
Injuries have wrecked Zumaya's past two seasons. They do have an influence on his numbers, but let's look at them anyway. Over the past two seasons his strikeout rate is down from 2006, his walk rate is up, and opponents batting average is up. His ERA is up. What is happening?
It's not uncommon for players to have sensational rookie campaigns, only to slip into mediocrity afterward. In 2006 most hitters were just getting their first look at Joel Zumaya and were blown away. As usually happens, this is where adjustments are crucial. Hitters adjust to the pitcher after seeing him more. Better scouting reports on the pitcher's weaknesses become available: Take the walks he'll give out, look for the fastball in a certain count, etc etc.
To maintain being a dominant pitcher, Zumaya has to make adjustments himself. Those are namely the curveball and the changeup, but also when to use them. This is where Zumaya needs to learn to pitch to dominate hitters. Matt Anderson wasn't able to do this, and floundered as a result.
Kick Knapp, the new pitching coach is working with Zumaya on this. Joel has a good curveball. Now Knapp and the catchers will make him better at effectively using it. Zumaya throws a changeup. Now Knapp and the catchers will make him better by improving the pitch itself, and when to use it.
These are the sort of adjustments Zumaya needs to make to become a better pitcher.
If he does and stays healthy at the same time, a big if I know, in 2009 we could see Joel Zumaya circa 2006: the one who destroys opposing batters and makes them look foolish. His success is key to the bullpen this year, and the Tigers playoff chances.
I think he can do it. Why not dream big?
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