Now, it looks like we’re about to find out. On Monday, the normally stoic Zimmermann looked giddy after he had retired 18 Tigers in a row and baffled many of them with his new change-up.
“I had all four pitches working,” the Washington Nationals’ right-hander said. “It’s hard to come by those days. They don’t come by often. You feel like you can’t do anything wrong. I threw a lot of good change-ups that were falling below the zone.”
Some of us have never seen him smile, much less grin, look sheepish, make quips and then disappear saying, “Let me sleep on this.”
Sweet dreams, indeed.
“The change is that equalizer pitch,” shortstop Ian Desmond said after watching Zimmermann hang a meek 0 for 12 on Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez — three of the best sluggers in baseball — as well as Detroit standouts Torii Hunter, Omar Infante and Alex Avila.
Until that game, Zimmermann might have been the Nats’ biggest worry. Ten days earlier, he gave up eight runs against his Cardinals nemeses and said he had a “dead arm.” But he predicted he would bounce right back, which he did with a solid outing. But few were prepared for Monday.
Zimmermann has talked about his new change-up all spring. But his pitching buddies have teased him that it’s just “a February change-up,” that will disappear in the regular season as soon as somebody lights one up with a 450-foot charge. The new pitch likely won’t go back in the ball bag now.
The Tigers were so off-stride that their groundouts reached fielders after many weak dribbles. Zimmermann needed just 67 pitches for six innings and had to go to the bullpen to throw 20 more just to make it a decent day’s work.
Even without an effective off-speed pitch that looks like a fastball when it leaves his hand, Zimmermann has had an ERA+ of 128 the last two seasons. That means his ERA (2.94 last year), adjusted for his home park, was 28 percent better than the league norm. How good is that? Just 20 starting pitchers since 1920 have an ERA+ of 128 or better. That’s why the change-up matters. From such a starting point, how much better can he get?
Still just 26, Zimmermann is just entering his prime. How good does he actually want to be? His combination of elite ERA but a mere 20-19 record the past two years makes you wonder if he has simply lacked run support or whether something in him shrinks from conspicuous success.
Zimmermann prefers to be overlooked. He deflects attention without being hostile. His excellence earns opponents’ respect, but he’s not splashy enough to draw a crowd. He loves it this way, standing just a bit to the side, observing, making a wry remark to a teammate, playing third banana behind Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez on the Nats’ top-ranked staff.