VIERA, Fla. – Washington Nationals scout Steve Arnieri first watched Jordan Zimmermann pitch early in his junior season at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a Division III outpost that produces both major leaguers and temperatures by the single-digit. “It was snowing sideways so hard,” Arnieri recalled, “you couldn’t even see him.”
The setting, then, was perfect for Zimmermann, an unassuming right-hander who prefers to fade into the scenery. And now, this season, Zimmermann may have found the perfect rotation. The Nationals have surrounded him with a franchise-shifting ace; a fast-talking curveball maestro; and an $11 million mercenary. They steal your attention and make you forget Zimmermann was the Nationals’ best pitcher last year, just the way Zimmermann wants it.
“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.
This spring, Zimmermann finally feels confident enough to make the change-up a more regular piece of his repertoire. Throwing live batting practice to teammates this weekend, Zimmermann induced weak grounders and a handful of swings-and-misses.
“About a week ago, I finally got a good feel for it,” Zimmermann said.
The toil Zimmermann put into developing his change-up may not give him one of the best in baseball, but that is not the point. Zimmermann only needs a change-up good enough for hitters to know he could throw one, to make his fastball seem even harder and his slider even more vicious.
“If I can throw five or six times in a game, just to show the hitters I have a change-up, they’re going to have that in the back of their minds,” Zimmermann said. “I don’t have to throw it a lot. I just have to mix it in there.”
Said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman: “If you’ve got a guy adding a pitch, it makes it harder. If he can throw it for strikes, it makes it that much harder. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
The Nationals are also glad to have him full for a season. Zimmermann made his last start on Aug. 28, when he surpassed 160 innings. The Nationals wanted to protect Zimmermann’s reconstructed right elbow, the same treatment they will give Stephen Strasburg this season.
“I’m sure Stephen is not too excited he’s going to be shut down after 160,” Zimmermann said. “I’m definitely excited and hoping I throw 200-plus innings.”
When the Nationals shut him down, Zimmermann felt strong enough to keep pitching; his fastball averaged 93 mph in his final start. Instead, he sat in the dugout during games, overcome by boredom.
“It was a lot tougher than I thought it would be,” Zimmermann said. “I had the surgery, and I couldn’t throw for four or five months. I figured a month of doing no throwing would be pretty easy. But it’s tough knowing you’re healthy and you know you can pitch, but you can’t go out there and throw every five days.”
Zimmermann considered lobbying General Manager Mike Rizzo and McCatty for another start, but decided against it. “There was no way I was going to get either one of those two to budge,” he said.
This year, the Nationals will happily hand him the ball every fifth game, from opening day until the end of the season. He may be in the shadows now. He will probably not stay there long.