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Tigers vs. Pirates Preview: Jordan Zimmermann opens up a new era of Tigers baseball

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The Tigers kick off Year One of their rebuild against Ivan Nova and the Pirates.

Chicago White Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Happy Opening Day everyone! While this particular season of Tigers baseball doesn’t come with the same amount of optimism as in previous years, there’s still something special about that first game of the year. Today, everyone is undefeated. Any team can end the day in first place, and even the worst of teams can still say “why not us?” It’s a fresh start for everyone, which doesn’t happen in many other walks of life.

One person who may appreciate that fresh start is Jordan Zimmermann. The Tigers’ $110 million man has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball over the past two years, producing a 5.60 ERA since arriving in Detroit. He has been worth -1.7 rWAR. Worse yet, a chronic neck issue has some wondering if Zimmermann will ever approach being the pitcher he was for seven seasons with the Washington Nationals.

Maybe it’s just Opening Day fever, but I think this will be Zimmermann’s best season in Detroit. Granted, that’s a low bar to clear, but he says he’s healthy, a far cry from the past two years. His spring training results say something similar. While he gave up a few runs, he produced 18 strikeouts to just three walks in 18 innings. As our old friend Kurt Mensching detailed at The Athletic (go subscribe!), strikeout and walk rates are two stats that might actually tell us something about the upcoming season. These improvements, combined with a quicker work rate, could lead to a return to form for the 31-year-old righthander.

But if not? That’s okay. Baseball is back.

Pittsburgh Pirates (0-0) at Detroit Tigers (0-0)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Bucs Dugout
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Ivan Nova (11-14, 4.14 ERA in 2017) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (8-13, 6.08 ERA in 2017)

Game 2 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Williams 150.1 18.2 8.1 4.03 2.2
Fulmer 164.2 16.9 5.9 3.67 3.5

It’s possible the Pirates got into their own heads when coaching Ivan Nova last year. Despite some inconsistent results over the course of his career, the 31-year-old righthander has always been one to produce lots of weak grounders. He has generated a career ground ball rate just shy of 50 percent in his eight MLB seasons, with little variance from year to year. However, Nova’s ground ball rate was just 45.7 percent in 2017, one of the lowest of his career. His overall results were right in line with his career numbers, but looked like a disappointment compared to his sparkling stretch run in 2016, when Nova produced a 3.06 ERA and 2.62 FIP in 11 starts with the Pirates.

What happened? There’s no perfect explanation, but it might have to do with Nova’s fastball. He threw his sinker just 39.5 percent of the time, down from a 51.5 percent rate the year before. Meanwhile, he threw his four-seam fastball at a higher clip. The sinker generates a higher ground ball rate, and results in a fly ball just 15 percent of the time. The four-seamer’s fly ball rate is nearly double that. This slight difference, combined with subtle differences in the composition of the baseball resulted in Nova’s highest home run rate since the 2012 season. Natural regressions in his strikeout and walk rates from the year before didn’t help either.

Here’s the conspiracy theory part. The Pirates realized that they missed out on the launch angle phenomenon. The increased prevalence of swings around the game tailored to generate more fly balls has made ground ball pitchers more vulnerable than ever. This was the exact type of pitcher the Pirates had built their run of NL Wild Card appearances on, and the exact type of pitcher they targeted in Nova last July. Did the home run revolution cause them to try to reverse course? Was Nova encouraged to throw more four-seamers and work a little higher in the zone?

It’s certainly possible, but not something we could ever prove. The results are equally muddy; opponents hit .305 with nine home runs against Nova’s four-seamer last year, and .301 with 11 homers against the sinker. Neither pitch was very good.

The real answer may be that this is just who Nova is. We have a thousand-inning sample that says he is a 1-2 win pitcher who can occasionally get hot for a month or two. That’s probably what happened in late 2016 — and in April 2017, getting everyone excited again — but shouldn’t be counted upon for a full season.

Key matchup: Jordan Zimmermann vs. pace of play

This might be the understatement of the year, but Zimmermann has struggled mightily in his first two seasons in Detroit. Injuries have played a role, of course, but even a healthy Zimmermann hasn’t looked right. One reason might be his rhythm on the mound (or lack thereof). Tigers radio announcer Dan Dickerson made an astute observation about Zimmermann’s pace during spring training, and how a simple adjustment could have a huge impact on Zimmermann’s 2018 season.

Zimmermann said last year that he felt healthy, but knew his mechanics were out of whack, and that it would probably take the off-season to fix things -it was just too hard to fix things on the fly during a season. So what did Bosio do? In his first conversation with Jordan, he mentioned nothing about mechanics. He just told him to pick up the pace - that he was almost a full second slower in his windup than when he was with Washington. Zimmermann did, and immediately felt like he’d found his old delivery. Better rhythm, better tempo - everything felt better. And in a game against the Yankees in Tampa, facing that loaded lineup, he dominated with a swing and miss slider that we simply haven’t seen in his two years in Detroit.

The numbers bear this out. Zimmermann averaged 18-21 seconds between pitches in each of his seven seasons in Washington, one of the faster paces in the league. He slowed down to 22 seconds between pitches in 2016, and 24.2 seconds between pitches last season. There’s no widespread correlation between pace on the mound and pitching success, but Zimmermann’s 18:3 strikeout-to-walk ratio during spring training is certainly a positive sign.

Projected lineups

Shameless plug time: we have a Patreon! The table below is one feature we may add in for subscribers throughout the season, but could also be something we feature in our game previews. Projecting lineups for 162 games might be difficult, but we’re open to suggestions (we also did pitcher-batter matchups last night).

And while we’re here, Colin Moran’s gaudy stat line against right-handed pitching last year was accumulated in just seven plate appearances. However, he’s no easy out; he hit .313/.391/.577 against righties in the minors last year. The Pirates will need that production and more, as they were the third-worst team in baseball against right-handed pitching last year.

Prediction

Zimmermann manages a quality start and the Tigers start off the season with a win.

Gameday reading