Zimmermann carving out an identity
Imperturbable Nationals starter is quietly, effectively making bland fashionable
Jordan Zimmermann, the shining light of the Washington Nationals' rotation in April and May, is functionally equipped to go the distance. He has the mechanics of a relentless strike thrower, a quick arm action that makes his mid-90s fastball play up a couple of mph, a set of pale blue eyes that bore a hole in the catcher's mitt before each delivery, and a heart rate that proceeds with the urgency of Beltway rush hour traffic.
Teammate Stephen Strasburg is inclined to vent his frustrations when things go poorly on the mound, and Gio Gonzalez, a 21-game winner last season, carries on conversations with umpires, teammates, himself, the baseball and the rosin bag -- in no particular order of preference. Zimmermann, in contrast, inhabits a world of indiscernible mood swings, soothing background music and neutral hues. His patience and serene temperament serve him well whether he's pitching out of a jam or ice fishing in his native Wisconsin.
Forget about the consistent release point or lustrous radar gun readings. Zimmermann's biggest competitive edge lies in his refusal to let the world know if he's disappointed with an umpire's call or is slightly off-kilter because he's pitching on an extra day's rest. The next time he hangs his head and slumps his shoulders on the mound, a la Jeff Weaver, or stares down a teammate over an error in John Lackey-like fashion, his fellow Nationals will look on from the dugout in a state of disbelief.
"I don't get too excited over too much stuff," Zimmermann said. "That's a big key on the baseball field. If you're getting rocked and giving up runs one after another, you don't want to show weakness. You try to keep the same face and the same demeanor all game."
While the national media spotlight focuses on Bryce Harper's recent confrontation with umpire John Hirschbeck, Strasburg's mechanical issues and Rafael Soriano's postgame shirt untucking regimen, Zimmermann is quietly making bland fashionable in Washington. With his next start on tap Monday at Dodger Stadium, he's 6-1 with a 1.59 ERA, a .181 batting average against and a 0.82 WHIP against some top-flight competition.
Zimmermann's early All-Star Game push has gained momentum in his past three appearances. He threw a complete-game one-hitter in a 1-0 victory over Cincinnati on April 26, and followed up with eight shutout innings in a 2-0 win over Atlanta. His streak of scoreless innings reached 20 before Detroit broke through with a run against him in a 3-1 loss to the Nationals on Wednesday.
When Washington first baseman Adam LaRoche watches Zimmermann at work, he's reminded of former Atlanta teammate Tim Hudson, who was so poker-faced in the dugout that his fellow Braves couldn't tell if he had just struck out the side or gotten rocked for five runs. LaRoche owns a ranch in Kansas, and Zimmermann bought a ranch in his native Wisconsin recently, and they've discovered that they're kindred spirits from the great outdoors. Zimmermann and LaRoche have filled lots of idle time in the clubhouse discussing the attributes necessary to bag a white-tailed deer.
"When people say he has no pulse, that's a great way to put it," LaRoche said. "He's just really, really tough mentally. He doesn't get flustered. Every start is not the end of the world. He doesn't allow himself to look too far ahead. He's in the moment, fearless, pitching, and whatever happens, happens. It's a pretty carefree but thought-out plan that's made him really successful."
In Zimmermann's home environs of central Wisconsin, spring snow flurries are always a Doppler forecast away and "Bring Your Tractor to School Day" is an annual event on the school calendar. He played on an Auburndale High School basketball team that made two state tournament appearances and showed enough talent as a wide receiver and safety that he considered playing both baseball and football at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Gary Hughes, one of the most acclaimed scouts in baseball history, has always been partial to multi-sport athletes because they learn how to compete in different situations and have plenty of room for growth once they focus exclusively on baseball. That was Zimmermann's progression in a nutshell; when he junked football and decided to concentrate on pitching for the Division III Pointers, his velocity improved and scouts began congregating at his games. The Nationals selected him with the 67th pick in the 2007 draft and brought him into the fold with a $495,000 signing bonus.
Zimmermann showed his mettle -- not to mention a high pain threshold -- when he suffered a broken jaw on a line drive in college and continued to pitch with his jaw wired shut. He is also a Tommy John surgery success story. Zimmermann had an elbow reconstruction in August 2009 and was back on the mound a year later. He threw 161 1/3 innings in 2011, ramped it up to 199 2/3 innings between the regular season and playoffs in 2012, and has carte blanche to sail past the 200 mark and beyond this year.
"I felt good from day one and never had one setback through the whole thing," Zimmermann said. "I never, ever have any issues with it, knock on wood. Hopefully nothing happens and I'll be good to go for the rest of my career."
Zimmermann turns 27 later this month, and continues to add to his repertoire. He's picked up a changeup that he throws 3-4 percent of the time, but sometimes the mere specter of the pitch is good enough. Against Detroit this week, he didn't have a great feel for the change and threw only one that sailed up and out of the strike zone to Prince Fielder. No matter, he painted the corners with a 94-96 mph fastball and a tight slider for seven innings and 101 pitches.
The Nationals keep drilling their starters on the importance of pitching with economy, and Zimmermann has embraced the concept with fervor. He is averaging 13.3 pitches per inning compared to 15.8 last season, and he has consistently gone deep into games with the exception of a five-inning, 96-pitch outing against the Mets.
If Zimmermann fails to attract the attention he deserves, it's because he's longer on substance than flash. His best attribute is his ability to work both sides of the plate with his fastball. What the approach lacks in sexiness, it makes up for in effectiveness.
"Jordan is just Jordan," said Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty. "People inside the game have known for years how good he is. I remember his first year in big league camp in 2009. Dan Warthen was with the Mets and we talked after the game. He said, 'I hope you don't have a lot more like that guy, because he's filthy.' "
Zimmermann is friendly, accommodating and slightly less than dynamic in media interviews, but his teammates see a wry sense of humor on display in airport terminals, hotel lobbies, the clubhouse and the dugout.
His cheese-headedness is a source of ongoing banter with Gonzalez, who grew up near Miami and instinctively bundles up when the temperature dips into the 50s. Gonzalez claims that he would love an invitation to Wisconsin to go ice-fishing in the winter, but would have to wear "about 15 layers of clothing" to survive the ordeal. He also jokes that Zimmermann's arm strength stems from taking part in so many snowball fights during his formative years.
"He's a sarcastic son of a gun, but we love everything about him," Gonzalez said of Zimmermann.
As Zimmermann carves out an identity in Washington, he is proving there's room for more than one "Zim" in the nation's capital. People with fleeting baseball knowledge occasionally confuse him with third baseman Ryan Zimmerman or think the two are related, even though Jordan has an extra "n" at the end of his last name.
"I was on my honeymoon this offseason, and my wife and I went to this resort in South Africa," Zimmerman said. "Jordan just built a house in Wisconsin, and we met a couple that was supposed to do his plumbing. I don't think they'd ever met Jordan. We met them and they were like, 'You're a Zimmerman that plays for the Nationals? Are you Jordan?' And I was like, 'Even in South Africa, it happens.' "
When Jordan Zimmermann was a youngster, his family took occasional trips to County Stadium in Milwaukee for Brewers games and he would soak in the atmosphere and marvel at the enormity of the place. The state of Wisconsin has produced a trio of Hall of Fame pitchers in old-timers Kid Nichols, Burleigh Grimes and Addie Joss, but Zimmermann's personal role models were Jarrod Washburn and Bob Wickman, fellow products of the Division III Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Zimmermann can still remember going on road trips and seeing Washburn's plaque at Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and the Wickman tributes on display at Wisconsin-Whitewater.
When Zimmermann notched his 30th career victory last week against the Tigers, he passed former Pirates righty Paul Wagner and moved into sole possession of 23rd place among Badger State natives. You get the distinct impression there'll be a lot more where that came from.
"He doesn't show a lot of outward emotion, but there's a big fire burning there," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson.
As an icy-veined monument to efficiency, Zimmermann is winning admirers the old-fashioned way. It was telling last week when Bank of America shareholders held their annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C. After some vigorous debate on a number of topics, a shareholder named Judy Koenick told a reporter that she needed to duck out early to catch the start of the Nationals game.
"Jordan Zimmermann is more important than this meeting," she said.
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