In an appearance on MASN earlier this season, D.C. GM Mike Rizzo talked about Stephen Strasburg's return from Tommy John surgery, and the importance of the right-hander's shift in philosophy, which has the 23-year-old with the 100 mph heater pitching to contact since it will allow him to be more efficient and go deeper into the game during his starts. "[Strasburg is] going to have a different mindset on the mound," the Nats' general manager explained, "and do a little bit more of the Jordan Zimmermann kind of a plan where instead of going for 10 strikeouts per nine innings, [going] maybe seven and a half and eight and getting more efficiency per pitch."
It wasn't a change that was forced on Strasburg or Jordan Zimmermann, who had Tommy John surgery in late 2009, but more of a realization that both pitchers came to naturally, as Strasburg said in last night's post game, "I try to do that every time out, just sometimes you have trouble locating the fastball, sometimes you command it a little bit better."
Zimmermann explained in an interview on Saturday that it wasn't the Nationals' coaches' suggestions that convinced him to alter his approach. "[They] really didn't tell me to change anything," Zimmermann said, "I've just come to realize that if I keep trying to strike everyone out, my pitch count is going to get higher faster and I'm not going to be able to stay in the game as long. So, when I came back this year I told myself to just throw strikes, let them put it in play and be able to stay in the game a lot longer."
In an interview as Spring Training got underway last February, the then-24-year-old Zimmermann, who turned 25 in May, told 106.7 the FAN in DC's Overtime with Bill Rohland and Danny Rouhier that before the surgery, "... my slider was my best pitch and my curve ball was just, okay, I guess, but after surgery my slider just went away and I had a hard time throwing it and the curve ball then became [a] better pitch, and it was more of a 12-6, a true curve, and had some pretty good bite to it. But now that I started up again, the slider seems to be back and the curve ball seems to back, so I don't know, I guess that's a [best] case scenario."
Though both pitches are back for him, Zimmermann threw significantly more sliders this season (24.0%) than he had in previous years, (10.8% in 2010, 16.1% in '09) and less curves (12.5%) than he had upon his initial return at the end of the 2010 season (20.9%). According to the pitcher, he would determine which breaking ball he was going to throw as he warmed up for each start. "Either one was good one game or one was good the other game and there was maybe a handful of games where they were both really good," Zimmermann said, "... but it was either one was going to be good or the other one was going to be good on any given day, so it was just one of those things I had to figure out in the bullpen before the game, which one was going to be working the best." How did he determine which bender he'd throw more often? "Just feel I guess," Zimmermann said.
After two seasons of waiting for the Nationals' one-two punch to pitch together at the top of the rotation, Washington should, barring any injuries, setbacks, etc., finally have both Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg in their rotation in 2012. Zimmermann, who returned after Strasburg's injury last year, and reached his innings-limit and was shut down just before Strasburg returned to the rotation this summer, has been impressed with what he's seen from Strasburg so far. "I've been watching him this last month here," Zimmermann said, "and he's been doing a great job so far, and I'm excited for next year, come Spring Training to be able to pitch and pick each other's brains all year."
Asked if anything in particular was impressive about what Strasburg's done in his first trial run with a surgically repaired ulnar collateral ligament, Zimmermann said, "Just his work ethic is unbelievable. He's always in the weight room, always doing something and staying busy, and strengthening the whole time. He came back in about the same amount of time, maybe earlier, and he put in a lot of hard work to get to where he is and he's shown it in the last couple of starts."
In 2012, Strasburg will be on a similar innings-limit to that which Zimmermann pitched on this year in his first full-season back on the mound. In a pregame press conference earlier this summer, Nats' Skipper Davey Johnson discussed how he's worked with pitchers recovering from injuries in the past and stretched them out over the course of the season, skipping starts and resting them when possible so that they could pitch the entire year, but the Nationals opted to keep Zimmermann on a regular rotation and shut him down early rather than trying to keep him going through the end of September.
Though Zimmermann told Washington Post reporter Adam Kilgore recently about how boring it was to be working out instead of pitching while there were still games to be played, the right-hander didn't seem upset with the decision to pitch until he reached his innings-limit and then shut down early. "You can look at it both ways," Zimmermann said, "Yeah, of course I wanted to pitch the whole season and maybe skipping a start here and there during the season I could've been able to pitch a whole season, but we tried that a couple times, and it seemed like every time I either skipped a start or had a longer rest I didn't pitch very well, so I think they wanted to keep me on a five-day rotation, and when I was able to pitch every fifth day I seemed to do a lot better."
Another thing Jordan Zimmermann did better this year was limit the number of fly balls that left the yard. After giving up 10 HR's in 91.1 IP in 2009 (12.2 HR/FB%) and 8 in 31.1 IP in late 2010 (22.2 HR/FB%), Zimmermann gave up just 4 HR's in 115.0 IP in the first half of the 2011 season, and though he gave up 8 in his final eight starts and 46.1 IP in the second-half, his 5.9 HR/FB% was a significant improvement considering both his line drive percentage and fly ball percentage were up this year. Zimmermann credited his ability to keep the ball in the park to simply, "Staying down [in the zone] and starting to learn how to pitch, I guess, a little better instead of just throwing the ball and trying to strike everyone out."
Asked if there was anything in particular he felt he needed to work on this winter, Zimmermann said he planned to add a new pitch to his repertoire. "Just this changeup," Zimmermann said, "I hope I can figure it out come this offseason. I found a pretty good grip that I feel comfortable with the last month here, and I'm excited to start throwing all offseason." He found the new grip not by studying Strasburg or any other pitcher with a power change, but just by playing around with different grips while he threw. "I was just monkeying around with the ball one day," Zimmermann explained, "and it felt pretty good when I was throwing it."
As for why he felt he needed to add a pitch to his already-impressive arsenal, the right-hander said, "Every pitcher needs a changeup, I think, unless you're coming out of the bullpen, but every starter should have one and I was lucky enough to get away with not really having one this year."
He has thrown a change before, of course, "I mean, I threw a few," Zimmermann continued, "but not as many as I probably should have and when you're facing a team and they go over a scouting report, 'He's got a fastball, curve ball, slider, you don't have to worry about his changeup,' and if I can just be able to throw a changeup and have that in the back of the hitter's mind that I have a changeup that's halfway decent, it will make me that much better." A better Zimmermann with a healthy Strasburg atop the Nationals' rotation in 2012? I hope the rest of the National League knows what's coming...