DETROIT — Jordan Zimmermann looked like a different pitcher on Sunday. After months of injuries and poor performances resulting from those setbacks, the Tigers got something they hadn’t seen since April — command.
At the start of the year, Zimmermann was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He won the American League Pitcher of the Month for April after finishing with an 0.55 ERA and three scoreless starts.
Then, he got injured and hasn’t been the same since. Zimmermann tried to come back too soon from his right neck strain (DL on July 2) and then during his start, he strained his right lat (DL on Aug. 4). The team suffered because of it. Not because of the loss from missing him (thought that didn’t help), but because his return resulted in giving up six runs in 1 2⁄3 innings on Aug. 4.
He didn’t pitch again until Sept. 10, and fared no better in a start where he lasted just one inning and, again, gave up six runs. Two simulated games later, he was supposed to get a third on Monday. But when the bullpen and Matt Boyd collapsed in spectacular fashion, someone had to eat innings and the Tigers needed to see how he’d stack up to facing real, live, opposing hitters — not the fake ones from his own team.
“It's tough in a sim game when you are facing the same four hitters every inning," he told MLB.com’s Jason Beck. "They are trying to get hits and swinging at the first pitch. You can't really set guys up. The best way to get out of something, a little funk or whatever it is, is to go out and face big league hitters.”
Zimmermann was sharp. His pitches had more bite, and the velocity was back like in April before the injury. It was only three inning of work in relief, and he gave up one run, but he also struck out four batters and walked no one. He hasn’t kept the damage to one run since he pitched a one-run eight-inning start with just four hits allowed on June 19, before he went on the DL.
He also hasn’t struck out that many in any stretch since that start. He’d given up 12 runs on 10 hits in the previous 2 2⁄3 innings between two attempted starts.
From June 24 until Sept. 10, Zimmermann had absolutely no command, his velocity was down, and he had no feel for the ball. His stuff was gone in a sense — he didn’t even have that working for him. In taking a look at the above, the swings he induced were up in the zone and most got peppered — and hard — across the field. Five times, those baseballs left the field.
Sunday was different. He located well, was down in the zone, and could paint the corners when he needed to. He looked, largely, like the pitcher that the Tigers saw in April and the first two weeks of May. It was enough for manager Brad Ausmus to consider him for a start.
“I had talked to him about the possibility of pitching out of the ‘pen if a game got lopsided, because this was better than a sim game,” Ausmus said on Sunday. “We got to see how actual hitters were responding to his stuff in game conditions. He looked good. He did give up a run, but he looked sharper that he had in his sim games. We would definitely consider starting in five days.”
Zimmermann undoubtedly has some things to work out and it’s only one relief appearance of three innings of work. But for the first time in nearly three months, he had his command back and didn’t look lost on the mound. If he can give the Tigers the same results in a start as he did on Sunday, then that’s a massive relief for the team and helps save an already overworked bullpen. Regardless of how the season ends.