If Josh Zeid were in a movie about the Tigers' 2014 offseason, his character title would be something ubiquitous like "Generic Reliever #7." He was one of several low-cost relievers picked up off the scrap heap this winter, nearly all of whom have a mid-90s fastball and spotty-at-best command.
What separates Zeid from the pack is his major league service time (hence the 40-man roster spot) and his split-change. The former isn't particularly noteworthy, as he has a career 5.21 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 48 1/3 innings. The latter should pique your interest, though. Zeid honed the pitch during his time in the minors and has thrown it 15 percent of the time in his brief major league career. It has generated a 22.6 percent whiff rate, even higher than his slider (at 20.2 percent).
The split-change was a huge addition for Zeid. He threw it 22 percent of the time to left-handed batters in 2013, including nearly 60 percent of the time when he got ahead in the count. The result? Lefties hit just .178/.275/.244 against him that year. A .212 BABIP certainly helped his cause, but Zeid also induced ground balls at a 57.6 percent rate against lefties compared to just 41.3 percent against right-handed hitters. He also struck out lefties at a slightly higher rate than righties.
The gaudy swinging strike rates and high fastball velocity should clue you in on what type of pitcher Zeid is. He has racked up 394 strikeouts in 385 career minor league innings, including 74 in 62 innings at the Triple A level. His strikeout rate has dipped slightly in the majors, but Steamer projects him to return to the 20 percent threshold in 2015. His control hasn't been a big issue so far in his minor league career, but he has walked over five batters per nine innings at Triple A. Small samples aside, expect more walks than you're comfortable with, but plenty of strikeouts to escape those jams.
Zeid's on-field problems arise when opposing hitters make contact. He was all kinds of homer-prone in 2014, allowing six dingers in just 20 2/3 innings. Part of this could just be bad luck, but part of it is his own doing. He likes to work his fastball up in the strike zone, which is great when hitters don't make contact. When they do, they hit it a long way; the average distance of the six home runs Zeid allowed was 402.8 feet. Zeid left a fair number of fastballs over the heart of the plate, which tops the list of "bad pitcher ideas" in the major leagues.
There is another substantial element to this equation. Zeid had season-ending bilateral foot surgery in July to correct a condition called sesamoiditis. Often caused by repeated or excessive extension of the big toe -- something a pitcher does every time he delivers the ball -- the small sesamoid bones along the toe can become inflamed or even fractured. It hurts to walk when this occurs, let alone pitch. There is no telling how long or to what extent the pain was affecting Zeid, but his numbers and slight drop in fastball velocity indicate that it was a significant impairment for him.
Zeid currently has just over a year of major league service time under his belt. He has at least two more seasons before he reaches arbitration, and potentially three if he spends enough time in the minor leagues. Even if he spends the next five years at the major league level, he won't reach free agency until after his age 32 season.
Stats and projections
It will be interesting to see how Zeid fares in spring training now that he is fully healthy. He looked like a pitcher ready to contribute at the major league level in 2013, and the splits he showed against left-handed batters were promising. His 2014 numbers should probably be taken with a grain of salt, but it's tough to determine whether he was limited by pain or just a bad pitcher. Sometimes these hard-throwers with bad command give up lots of hits. When you like to throw high fastballs like Zeid does, those hits go far.
Unfortunately, we will have to wait to see whether the Josh Zeid experiment becomes a thing. Joba Chamberlain's arrival in Lakeland all but guarantees that Zeid and Alex Wilson -- the two guys I figured were competing for Joba's spot -- will start the year in Toledo. It's possible that they take Zeid over a lefty, but I don't know if the club will buy his small sample of success against lefties over the more traditional lefty-lefty matchup. The organization doesn't seem too interested in taking things slow with Bruce Rondon either, so it will probably take someone getting hurt or screwing up before we see Zeid in Detroit.