Jordan Zimmermann threw his slider 578 times in 2011. Opposing hitters put up a .229 AVG on the year when they barreled up the pitch that season. In 2012, the Washington Nationals' '07 2nd Round pick threw 728 sliders total, and the opposition posted a .251 AVG on the pitch. Last season, hitters managed just a .165 AVG on Zimmermann's slider, though he did surrender a career-high seven home runs on the pitch. While he's yet to give up a home run on a slider so far this season, opposing hitters have a .302 AVG when they hit the just-turned-28-year-old right-hander's slider.
In an interview with MASN's Dan Kolko before last night's start in PNC Park, Zimmermann admitted his slider is still not quite there this season and talked about how he goes about working on it in-between outings.
"Playing catch every day," Zimmermann said, "and throwing it when I'm playing catch and then obviously in the bullpen and throw it quite a bit and try to get a good feel for it. But it's been a little hard and when it's hard it's pretty flat and doesn't do much so I've got to get it down a few miles an hour and it's going to break a little more."
According to Fangraphs.com, Zimmermann has been throwing an 86.5 mph slider (average velocity) so far this season, up from 85.9 in 2013, 86.4 mph in 2011-12 and 85.4 mph in 2011.
"He's using his curveball a lot more probably because he doesn't have that feel," Nats' skipper Matt Williams said after Zimmermann's start last night in PNC Park.
"We talked about that earlier. It's just he doesn't have the real feel for the slider."
In the first inning last night, Zimmermann got two groundouts with his slider, throwing it in a 2-2 count to Pirates' right fielder Josh Harrison, who grounded out to third, and in a 1-0 count to Andrew McCutchen, who grounded into an inning-ending double play.
Zimmermann got another groundout with his slider in the second, but there was a runner on third who scored when Starling Marte rolled over the 0-1 offering and sent a grounder to short.
With a runner on third, Zimmermann bounced a 1-1 slider outside that got away from Nats' catcher Wilson Ramos and allowed the Pirates' second run of the inning to score.
"That was the one that went to the backstop," Williams said. "But his curveball has been good. He's been able to throw that one for strikes."
While a wild pitch on a slider cost Zimmermann a run, the two hardest-hit offerings of the night were a fastball to Pirates' catcher Russell Martin earlier that inning that was lined to left for a double that set the home team up with runners on second and third and no one out and a 1-0 change he left up in the zone for Pedro Alvarez in the fourth, that ended up in the sculpted bushes beyond the center field wall that spell out "PIRATES."
That two-run blast by the Pirates' slugging but struggling third baseman ended up being the game-winner.
"Tonight he got hurt on a fastball for a double and then the changeup for a homer," Williams said. "He's been able throw his breaking balls for strikes, it's just the slider hasn't quite been there yet."
Williams said after the game that overall, in spite of a few mistakes, the outing was a strong one for Zimmermann.
"He had second and third early," Williams explained. "He got the ground ball to make it two outs and then one went to the backstop. He pulled a slider and then he hung a changeup to Alvarez for the four runs. So it's good hitting on his part on a ball that was kind of up in the strike zone. Other than that, those two swings really were the only difference."
The Nationals managed to score three runs to make it close, but the home run by Alvarez ended up being the difference. Zimmermann took the loss and the Nats fell to 24-24 on the season.
On the year, Zimmermann's now (3-2) on the year, with a 3.95 ERA, a 3.35 FIP, 12 walks (1.87 BB/9) and 47 Ks (7.74 K/9) in 54 2/3 IP.