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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: How long will this Jordan Zimmermann stick around?

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Through two starts, Zimmermann is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Can he keep it going?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

We have seen this from Jordan Zimmermann before. The 32-year-old righthander didn’t allow a run in his first three starts in a Tigers uniform back in 2016, and took a 1.50 ERA into mid-May. He was 8-2 with a 2.58 ERA in early June that year. But, as we all know, things fell apart after that. Zimmermann only made nine appearances after that and finished the season with a 4.87 ERA.

We saw it again in 2018, albeit in a smaller sample. Zimmermann struck out 11 in a dominant performance in early July, capping off a three-start stretch as impressive as any he has had since he arrived in Detroit. But even with strikeout and walk rates that rival anything else he has done in his career, he still allowed a 4.52 ERA in 25 starts.

Zimmermann’s numbers through two starts in 2019 are unsustainable, but this season feels different. If nothing else, we are seeing a very different Zimmermann than in previous years.

The easy answer here is that Zimmermann is utilizing a more unpredictable three-pitch mix than before. He is throwing his low-90s fastball at a career low rate (37.2 percent), with career-high slider (38.4 percent) and curveball (23.2 percent) rates. He has all but abandoned the changeup, by far his worst offering on a per-pitch basis according to FanGraphs’ pitch values.

There don’t seem to be any major changes to Zimmermann’s repertoire beyond that. He hasn’t fundamentally changed any of his pitches, a la Matthew Boyd’s revamped slider, and his fastball velocity is still on the decline (as expected for his age). But assuming he stays healthy and continues to hit his spots, hitters could have a much tougher time squaring him up than they have in his three previous seasons in a Tigers uniform.

Cleveland Indians (6-3) at Detroit Tigers (7-3)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Corey Kluber (0-2, 5.23 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-0, 0.66 ERA)

Game 11 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Kluber 10.1 18.8 8.3 2.70 0.3
Zimmermann 13.2 20.4 2.0 1.74 0.6

Throughout the offseason, the main question surrounding Corey Kluber was whether he would be wearing a Cleveland uniform at the start of the season. The Indians listened in on offers for their ace, but ultimately did not receive any to their liking. The thought was that by trading Kluber for talented prospects — you know, instead of just signing good free agents — the Indians could extend their competitive window for a few more years.

That Cleveland didn’t strike a deal over the winter opens up a new box of questions — why wasn’t Kluber dealt? Were teams spooked by his slight regression from 2017, his declining fastball velocity, or relative lack of bite on his slider? Is Kluber, nearing age 33 (his birthday is on Wednesday), starting to decline? Some may look at his early struggles in 2019 and say yes, but, like, c’mon now. Kluber is projected for another 5.3 fWAR by ZiPS this year, and a 3.29 ERA in 2021, his age-35 season and the final one on his current contract.

If we are to take anything from Kluber’s first two starts, it’s that he is reintroducing a fourth pitch. He has thrown his changeup 13.6 percent of the time so far this season, his highest rate since 2012. One of them got a lot of the blame for Kluber’s Opening Day loss, but that Marwin Gonzalez double is the only hit he has allowed on the change so far this year. The changeup seems to be a focus for Kluber in 2019, presumably as a counter to allowing 16 home runs to left-handed hitters last season (he hasn’t thrown one to a righty yet). It could also be a way to help him adapt to age-related velocity decline, giving him another weapon on days where the heater isn’t working.

Key matchup: April Kluber vs. Klubot engaged

Regardless of how Kluber’s ERA ended up at 5.23 following his two starts — he was very good on Opening Day before getting knocked around last time out, if we’re keeping score — this continues a longstanding trend of Kluber taking a little while to get going at the start of the year. He posted a 2.18 ERA last March and April, but gave up ERAs in the 4s in each of the previous four Aprils (including both of his Cy Young seasons).

This is where the smart analysis ends, though. Does Kluber continue to struggle (and in turn, can the Tigers take advantage)? Or does he find his footing, return to the dominant force we are all too familiar with, and deliver his 12th career win against Detroit?

Prediction

The Tigers take the lead in the middle innings against Kluber and hold on for the win.