Non-Nationals fans could be forgiven if the first thing that popped into their heads when hearing the name Jordan Zimmermann was “test case.” It seemed that for much of the 2012 season, talk about Zimmermann centered not so much on the season he was having but how it related to Stephen Strasburg‘s recovery from the same Tommy John surgery he underwent one year after Zimmermann. Unfortunately, what that did was relegate Zimmermann to a role of one of baseball’s most underrated aces.
2012 Projections (ZiPS): 7-5, 3.65 ERA, 22 games, 120 2/3 IP
2012 Actual: 12-8, 2.94 ERA,32 games, 195 2/3 IP
Starting the season as the No. 3 pitcher in the Washington rotation, behind the generational talent of Strasburg and the shiny new acquisition, Gio Gonzalez, the chronically understated Zimmermann was always going to fly under the radar. Unfortunately for him, that applied to his run support as well. Zimmermann won only eight games in 2011 despite a sterling 3.18 ERA in 26 starts, and his 2012 season began no differently. There was Zimmermann, giving the Nationals a consistent six or seven innings of one- or-two-run ball, and consistently getting nothing to show for it. Through the end of May, the 26-year-old had eight quality starts in 10 appearances, but sported only a 3-5 record.
Through it all, he was the example. When Nationals GM Mike Rizzo announced in spring training he would be keeping Strasburg on an innings limit in 2012, all eyes turned to Zimmermann, who fulfilled a similar regimen in 2011 after his surgery. If Zimmermann bounced back stronger, it would appear to validate Rizzo’s decision — whereas if he struggled, pundits would have more ammunition to fire at Rizzo.
Struggle was not in Zimmermann’s vocabulary for most of the summer. Throughout June and July, he continued his streak of throwing at least six innings per start, a streak that reached 21 before coming to an end on August 4. But finally, someone noticed.
July was Zimmermann’s best month of his big league career. In six starts, he went 4-0 with a 0.97 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP. For that, Zimmermann was awarded the National League Pitcher of the Month award for July, the third Nats hurler to pick up that award in 2012 after Strasburg in April and Gonzalez in May.
It was at this point that the season started to go south a little bit. Zimmermann’s pitch counts went up as he labored more in his starts, perhaps a byproduct of approaching his professional high-water mark in innings pitched. But after a clunker of start against the St. Louis Cardinals on September 1 — a harbinger of things to come — Zimmermann finished strong, ending his season with an ERA under 3.00 and becoming one of five Nats starters to win at least 10 games.
Unfortunately for the Nats, Zimmermann couldn’t keep that momentum going in the playoffs against the Cardinals. Tabbed to start Game 2 in St. Louis, and trying to secure a 2-0 series lead for Washington, Zimmermann fell apart, allowing five runs on seven hits in only three innings, putting Washington well behind the eight-ball from the get-go. He did rally to strike out the side in an electric relief appearance in Game 4, but that was the last we saw of him after the Cardinals epic Game 5 comeback sent Washington home.
There is no reason to think 2013 will see a drop-off from Zimmermann, who was as consistent as they come all season long. The most pressing Znn-related matter might be trying to get him signed to a long-term contract extension before his free agent years approach.
Season highlight: His best game also kind of summed up his season. Against the Astros on April 18, Zimmermann allowed just one run on four hits through seven innings, walking none while throwing just 86 pitches. But with the Nationals in the middle of a rally in a 1-1 game, Zimmermann had to make way for Steve Lombardozzi and didn’t get the win despite the Nats 3-2 victory.
Chien Ming Wang