Jordan Zimmermann on Unstoppable Path to Becoming a $110M Disaster

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 22, 2017

DETROIT, MI - MAY 18: Jordan Zimmermann #27 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the first inning while playing the Baltimore Orioles at Comerica Park on May 18, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Jordan Zimmermann still has time to live up to the five-year, $110 million contract he signed with the Detroit Tigers in November 2015. He's served one year and not even two months.

But that's about the extent of the bright side.

Although the Tigers could be doing worse than 21-21, they're nonetheless saddled with a laundry list of problems that could doom them to a third straight October-less season. And if Zimmermann isn't atop the list, he's certainly near the top.

The right-hander's first start of 2017 went well, as he allowed just one run in six innings against the Boston Red Sox back on April 8. But it's been one calamity after another in seven outings since then, and the string has jacked up his ERA to an ugly 6.25.

This is coming on the heels of a 4.87 ERA in only 19 appearances last year, Zimmermann's first in Detroit following an ace-like tenure with the Washington Nationals. His total ERA as a Tiger is now 5.28. His wins above replacement is at minus-0.4.

Among the exclusive club of free-agent $100 million pitchers, that puts Zimmermann on his way to making even Mike Hampton and Barry Zito look good:

A Brief History of $100M Free-Agent Pitchers
PlayerYearTeamYearsDollarsStatusWAR Produced
Kevin Brown1998LAD7$105MFinished22.9
CC Sabathia2008NYY7$161MFinished22.5
Cliff Lee2010PHI5$120MFinished21.2
Zack Greinke2012LAD6$147MFinished17.5
Max Scherzer2015WAS7$210MActive14.8
Jon Lester2014CHC6$155MActive8.9
Johnny Cueto2015SFO6$130MActive6.3
Zack Greinke2015ARZ6$206.5MActive4.2
David Price2015BOS7$217MActive3.0
Barry Zito2006SFO7$126MFinished3.0
Mike Hampton2000COL8$121MFinished2.9
Jordan Zimmermann2015DET5$110MActive-0.4
MLB Trade Rumors and Baseball-Reference.com

Zimmermann, who will turn 31 on Tuesday, hasn't even reached the big money yet. He's making $18 million for a second year in a row. Up next is a $24 million salary in 2018 and $25 million salaries in 2019 and 2020.

This puts him and the Tigers in a position where they have no choice but to try to be optimistic. 

"It's got to change," Zimmermann said in mid-May, per Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. "I feel good out there. The ball is finally coming out good. I hope it changes soon. I am still making mistakes, don't get me wrong. But I'm getting unlucky, too."

Added Tigers catcher Alex Avila: "At the end of the day, the line is the line. But the past few starts, even though the line doesn't look good, you know he's definitely not pitching to where the results are."

When placed under scrutiny, though, the "it's just bad luck" excuse doesn't hold up.

With a career rate of 1.9 walks per nine innings that ranks first among active pitchers, Zimmermann is normally elite at the free passes thing. But his walk rate has been trending toward the league average for a couple of years, and it's now nothing special at 2.8 per nine innings this year.

In addition, Zimmermann has gone from struggling to maintain a league-average strikeout rate to well under the league average. His rate of 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings since last season is the fourth-lowest among qualified starters.

And then there are the dingers. Goodness, are there dingers. 

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 1: Freddie Freeman #5 of the Atlanta Braves rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run against Jordan Zimmermann #27 of the Detroit Tigers (foreground) in the fourth inning at Turner Field on October 1, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgi
Kevin Liles/Getty Images

Zimmermann has served up 11 home runs in only 44.2 innings. That's a rate of 2.2 per nine innings, which has made his recent problem with homers significantly worse.

Better stuff would be one avenue to fix all this, but that ship has sailed. Zimmermann didn't have eye-popping stuff even when his fastball velocity was sitting in the mid-90s. Now his fastball is a long way from those glory days, as Brooks Baseball can show:

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

Zimmermann's reliance on his fastball is following a similar trend. His use of his four-seamer peaked at 70.7 percent in 2014, a year in which he posted a 2.66 ERA and threw a no-hitter. Now his usage of it is barely above 50 percent.

This isn't making it easy for him to find the strike zone, which explains his fallen walk rate. And without extra strikes or extra velocity, there's likely no rescuing his fallen strikeout habit.

But among all of Zimmermann's problems, the most damaging one will be the hardest to fix.

With a career ground-ball percentage of just 42.3, he's a fly-ball pitcher by default. He was able to dodge home runs in the past despite that. But now he finds himself in the most extreme home run era in history, wherein seemingly every hitter is trying to hit the ball with loft and speed.

Zimmermann is getting the worst of it. His GB% has been pushed to an MLB-low 25.7 percent. And at an average of 93.9 miles per hour, balls in the air off him aren't being hit softly.

So, this is not bad luck. This is a pitcher who no longer has the stuff to make the most of a pitching style that's quickly gone from being risky to downright dangerous.

And there's nothing the Tigers can do to help their guy.

A good receiver (or two) behind the plate might steal him some strikes outside the zone. But according to Baseball Savant, that's not what Avila and James McCann are about.

A good defense might convert more of his batted balls into outs. But the Tigers are struggling as much as usual in that regard.

A bigger home ballpark might help his home run rate come down. But you've seen Comerica Park. It's a wonder it isn't used as an emergency landing zone for jumbo jets.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 06:  Jordan Zimmermann #27 of the Detroit Tigers is relieved by manager Brad Ausmus #7 during the sixth inning against the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum on May 6, 2017 in Oakland, California. The Oakland Athletics defeated th
Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

What might be Zimmermann's best hope of redeeming his contract is the Zito route: aiding a World Series championship run with a few well-timed good performances.

However, the Tigers wouldn't be in the postseason if the season ended today. And when you take a good, long look at them, it's hard to see a team that has the potential to be much better. They have a shallow roster built around a core of aging stars. And unlike in 2016, said stars are looking their age.

Hence, the other thing a close look at the Tigers reveals: the final curtain starting to close.

Although they didn't rebuild this past winter, ESPN.com's David Schoenfield was (and still is) right in thinking that they're ripe for a rebuild. And with championship-hungry owner Mike Ilitch having died in mid-February, there's now a question of whether anyone in the organization would say no to a rebuild.

Even in retrospect, it's hard to say the Tigers erred in signing Zimmermann. Although it did require ignoring the warning signs hanging over his head—FanGraphs' Dave Cameron was on it—it made more sense for the Tigers to try to stretch their contention window than to shut it completely.

For that, they needed starting pitching depth. And once David Price and Zack Greinke each got over $200 million and Johnny Cueto got $130 million, it's worth remembering that the Tigers actually seemed to have gotten a good deal at the time.

But it just hasn't worked. And going forward, there's not a lot that either Zimmermann or the Tigers can do about that.

     

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Savant.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

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