Jordan Zimmermann took advantage of the time he had to work on his game after he was shut down in late August of 2011 in his first year back following Tommy John surgery, to try to add a changeup he had confidence in to his repertoire. The then-25-year-old right-hander said he'd found a grip he liked and explained how it would give hitters something else to think about when they faced him. "Every pitcher needs a changeup," the Nats' '07 2nd Round pick said, "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." Zimmermann threw the pitch 6.7% of the time over his first 16 starts and 91.1 innings in the majors following his MLB debut in 2009. That was down to 3.3% in 2010 in the 31.0 innings he threw at the end of the year after recovering and rehabbing from the surgery late in his rookie campaign.
In his first season back following the procedure it was down to 2.2% in 2011. "I hope I can figure it out come this offseason," Zimmermann said, "I found a pretty good grip that I feel comfortable with the last month here, and I'm excited to start throwing all offseason." The point of adding it to the mix on a more regular basis was just to give hitters one more thing to think about when they prepare to see the 6'2'', 220 lb hurler. "When you're facing a team and they go over a scouting report," Zimmermann explained, "'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."
It was pretty much the same mix for Zimmermann in 2012, however. 62.5% fastballs, 23.7% sliders, 11.5% curves and 2.2% changeups. When the Nats' starter talked to Washington Times' writer Amanda Comak on Saturday, Zimmermann said he's still working on getting comfortable enough with his changeup to use it as a legitimate fourth pitch. "Last year he wanted to get comfortable enough to use it a handful of times in a game," the Times' Ms. Comak writes, "maybe five or six, to keep hitters guessing. This year it may be more of a weapon for him on its own." Some of the changeups he threw in a bullpen session were impressive enough for his pitching coach and manager to mention them and one even caught catcher Wilson Ramos off guard leading to him closing his glove on the pitch before it made its way into the catcher's mitt.
Nats' skipper Davey Johnson liked what he saw from Zimmermann. "The first changeup he threw, or the second or third changeup he threw, Ramos couldn't even catch it and he said, 'That was a pretty good changeup.' He closed his mitt before it got there and said, 'That was a good one.'" As the manager explained it to reporters after the team's workout on Saturday, the potential for Zimmermann to improve his repertoire after a strong (12-8), 2.94 ERA, 3.51 FIP, +3.5 fWAR, 43 walk (1.98 BB/9), 153 K (7.04 K/9) 2012 campaign, is just another example of how his team hasn't yet reached the ceiling of what they're capable of accomplishing.
"There is a higher ceiling for Jordan," Johnson said, "because there's more weapons he has in his arsenal. Just like [Ross] Detwiler. [Detwiler] predominantly was hard. And toward the end of the year, we kept trying to mix in the curve ball and the other stuff. And maybe the last two or three starts, he did and they were easy for him. But he got some easier outs by using other pitches and getting strictly off the fastball. So, that's just part of experience of being up here and learning more ways to get people out."
And it's not just Zimmermann and Detwiler who are still learning at the major league level. "It's the same way with [Stephen] Strasburg using all his pitches early or using his fastball to set up everything later," Johnson said, "It's all a learning experience." The Nats' skipper said the same before the 2012 season even ended when a reporter asked how the Nationals could improve on their 98-win campaign. "We still have a lot of guys haven't really hit their stride," the then-69-year-old manager explained in October, "There's still a bigger ceiling for a number of players on this ballclub. You know, Zimm, Stras, Det, this is really their first full season in the big leagues."
It's a point Johnson reiterated this weekend. "We're talking about guys that are very young in their big league careers, and the one thing you can't teach is experience. That was what hurt us in the playoffs, but the talent was such that all during the year we overrode a lot of the inexperience. But as they get more experienced and start learning about the league, different hitters and different ballclubs it becomes easier." Another pitch in his repertoire. Another thing for hitters to consider when they face him. Jordan Zimmermann knows there are still ways for him to continue to improve. And for those who've watched him develop since he was drafted and for opposing hitters, that's a frightening prospect.