Zimmermann and Deep Counts

Baseball Prospectus had a great article yesterday in their series of mock arbitration hearings, focused on the Nats own Jordan Zimmermann. It’s a pay site, so I won’t get into the whole meat of the argument, but I personally think PECOTA and this article alone are worth the subscription to any Nats fan. Heck, I won’t even tell you who they voted to win the arbitration hearing. Partly because it is a pay site, and partly because I don’t care that much about things like that.

What I will share, is some of the great info they had about JZimm. There was some stuff you might already know. His July, where he earned NL pitcher of the month, went 4-0 with a 0.97 ERA. His 6th highest average fastball velocity in the league (among starters). Even his ability to swing the bat. His great season ERA and quality start total. But as I said, there’s a good change you knew all of this data.

What I found most interesting was the comparison to Matt Cain – not so much in that they are the exact same pitcher, just that at similar points in their careers, they were underappreciated, at least by the Cy Young voters. How many votes did Zimmermann get for the 2012 Cy Young award? None. That’s not a single vote, despite double digits Wins, a winning record, a sub-3.00 ERA, and the Nats making the playoffs. According to BP:

The only other pitcher to do the same in the last several seasons is Matt Cain, who’s a lot like Zimmermann in some other respects. Both are right-handers with similar heights and builds. Both throw the same assortment of five pitches at roughly similar rates (Zimmermann uses his changeup more often). Both throw hard with excellent control, but neither gets many strikeouts. Both Cain in 2009 and Zimmermann in 2012 had modest win totals and were overshadowed by other pitchers on their own staffs

Cain, if you aren’t familiar, has had a history of being underappreciated – not just by the voters, but by sabermetrics as well. Don’t fall into the common trap here: It’s not that sabermetrics thinks he was bad, its that the stats indicated he was more lucky than skilled, and his success wasn’t repeatable. I don’t mean that the stats show he wasn’t all that good. Ok, back to their comparison:

Zimmermann’s 2012 was not only the more valuable season—his WARP would have led 22 teams’ pitching staffs—but the more overlooked. Unlike Cain in 2009, he wasn’t even an All-Star, despite a 2.61 ERA in 110 1/3 first-half innings.

They go on to talk about how Cain has gotten more respect recently (as evidenced by his top 10 Cy voting the last two season) thanks to his team’s success, the fact that Lincecum isn’t dominant anymore, and his ability to throw over 200 innings for a half a dozen years. But enough about Cain, this is where the article get really interesting. He dives into the fact that Zimmermann doesn’t seem to last deep into games. This isn’t news, at least it shouldn’t be. It was pointed out last season how much the rotation lacked the ability to pitch past the 6th inning, and it was Gio and Strasburg, too, and how taxing that could be on the bullpen. I’m not saying that it all caught up to them in game 5 of the NLDS, but… Anyway, it isn’t surprising if you noticed this last year, because it’s so damn rare. Here’s what BP said about this

Since 2000—the first season for which Baseball-Reference tracks all of these stats—only one other pitcher (Zimmermann’s walk-prone, low-BABIP-aided teammate Gio Gonzalez) has made as many starts, thrown as many pitches per start, allowed baserunners at as low a rate, and failed to get to 200. Zimmermann allowed fewer baserunners per inning than 16 starters who did make it to 200 last season.

The bold typeface above is my own insertion, by the way. The conclusion, again turning to BP (after they go through some reasons why you might think it’s happening, but they aren’t that case):

Zimmermann’s not falling behind, he’s not nibbling, and he’s not throwing an extraordinarily low number of pitches per start. Yet out of 88 qualified starters, Zimmermann threw only the 47th-fewest pitches per inning, despite allowing baserunners at the 20th-lowest rate. The problem? Zimmermann averaged 3.84 pitches per plate appearance, 33rd-most out of 88 qualifiers. He’s getting ahead, but it’s taking him too long to finish off hitters.

Basically, JZimm is doing everything he needs to do except finally punching the guys out. You know, the thing he’s conciously trying not to do. Now, he doesn’t have to get the strikeouts in order to win, but if you’re ahead on hitters, it probably not a good idea to avoid striking them out just to avoid striking them out. Or at least, that is what the article suggests is happening. Too many fastballs in a row, leading to too many fastballs, leading to 5+ IP and done.

It will be interesting to see if this gets addressed this year. If you notice after a few starts,  he is suddenly pitching deeper into games, it might be worth checking to see what he’s doing different. Is he throwing fewer fastballs? Is he striking guys out more? I know I’ll be looking.

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