One of the most difficult things to do at the start of a baseball season is to decipher which early trends will become season-long phenomenons. Few expected White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia to continue defying the BABIP gods for 162 games after a red-hot April, but he finished the year with an .885 OPS. Likewise, not many expected Jordan Zimmermann to fall so far after such a spectacular opening to his 2016 season.
But if there were a way for Zimmermann to get people back on the bandwagon after two injury-riddled seasons below replacement level, this was about it. Sure, he gave up four runs in six innings, but he also struck out eight Pittsburgh Pirates to just one walk and did not allow a home run. He generated nine swinging strikes on 81 pitches, an 11 percent whiff rate that is far above his career norms. He pounded the strike zone — 17 of the 24 hitters he faced went down 0-1 — and just looked better than at almost any point over the past two years.
Is it for real? The swinging strike rate probably won’t stay that high, and his velocity hasn’t improved any. His pitch movement looks sharper, but we’re looking at just one outing here. Among other things, Zimmermann needs to stay healthy, which is no guarantee given how the last two years have gone. We obviously need to see more of this before we write the “Jordan Zimmermann is back!!!1!” article, but it was certainly a promising opening salvo.
Detroit Tigers (1-4) at Chicago White Sox (3-2)
Time/Place: 4:10 p.m., Guaranteed Rate Field
SB Nation site: South Side Sox
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV (Free Game of the Day), Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-0, 6.00 ERA) vs. RHP James Shields (1-0, 6.00 ERA)
Game 6 Pitching Matchup
On the other hand, James Shields’ first start of 2018 was nearly identical to what we have seen from him over the past couple years. He gave up four runs to the light-hitting Kansas City Royals in his first inning of work before making an adjustment and gutting his way through six frames. His approach in that start wasn’t anything too special — my untrained eye didn’t see anything new besides “here it is, hit it” on a wet day in Kansas City — and he didn’t strike out a single batter.
But as mentioned before, Shields did plenty of this last season. His strikeout rate was in line with his career norms, but he walked a career-high 10.3 percent of hitters. He also coughed up over two home runs per nine innings, resulting in a 6.00 ERA — also a career worst. Opponents slugged .609 (!) on his once-elite changeup last year, and also hit the fastball and cutter hard.
To his credit, Shields has tried to reinvent himself. He relied on the changeup less often, and threw more curveballs than ever last year. He went almost exclusively fastball-cutter-curveball against right-handed hitters, and generally held them in check (.228 average, .293 on-base percentage). Lefties produced a .929 OPS against him, though, a far cry from near-reverse splits for his career.
Key matchup: Jordan Zimmermann vs. Guaranteed Rate Field’s cozy dimensions
One-start caveats apply, but Zimmermann generated fly balls on 60 percent of batted balls last Friday, including a ludicrous 44 percent pop-up rate. Neither of these will continue, but Zimmermann has still been one to allow plenty of fly balls since his arrival in Detroit. This can work well at home, especially on cold days like he had last week. It might not play in Chicago, though, where opponents managed plenty of home runs last year. The same will go for Shields, of course, but the White Sox now have more power up and down their lineup. Nearly everyone is a threat to go yard, especially against Zimmermann, who gave up 1.6 home runs per nine last season.
Another low-scoring game in a cold environment.