“I think this is my second interview all year,” Zimmermann said Wednesday morning, chuckling. “It’s good. I like to stay in the shadow. All these new guys here keep [reporters] busy.”
Zimmermann could have a hard time maintaining his low profile this year. Last season, when the Nationals limited him to 1611
3 innings because he had recently recovered from elbow-ligament-replacement surgery, he finished 10th in National League with a 3.18 ERA, striking out 124 batters while walking only 31.
He produced his fabulous season without a change-up, a pitch that could help make his mid-90s fastball and heavy slider even better, a pitch he has finally found comfort with this spring.
“I’ve got to figure this change-up out. I’ve been talking about it for three years,” Zimmermann said. “I have a lot better feel for it. I’m excited to get out in some games and start throwing it to other teams.”
In college, Zimmermann never needed a change-up, able to dominate with only fastballs and sliders. When he tried throwing change-ups, “they didn’t do anything and they were way too hard,” he said. When the Nationals drafted him in 2007, he knew he should add a change-up.
Zimmermann toyed with different grips, never finding one that fit. He started throwing a two-seam change-up, “but I throw a four-seam fastball, so that really didn’t make much sense,” Zimmermann said. “It’s going to come in looking like a two-seamer, and they’re going to go, ‘Oh, that’s a change-up.’ ”
During one bullpen session last year, Zimmermann experimented with using a split-fingered fastball as his change-up. But the splitter — a pitch that requires a pitcher to shove the ball between his index and middle finger — notoriously puts pressure on the elbow. Pitching coach Steve McCatty consulted with trainer Lee Kuntz about Zimmermann using a splitter.
“We decided we didn’t want to go that route, especially after coming back” from Tommy John surgery, McCatty said. “We took that away.”
Zimmermann finally settled on a circle change, which spun off his hand like a four-seam fastball. He still could not throw it right. He dragged his arm across his body rather than extending it toward the plate. The pitch stayed at a hitter’s belt or higher. He only threw one or two per game.