Zimmermann vs. Strasburg: Who Should the Nationals Invest In?
By Tim Richer
If you were forced to choose between Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg, who would you take? A couple years ago the answer to this question would have been easy, but now not so much. Strasburg, the former number one overall pick, has seen his stock fall a little, while Zimmermann’s has risen. Both are in line for huge paydays as they inch closer to free agency. Zimmermann is just a year away and Strasburg is two. The Nationals may not be able to afford both and could face a tough decision on what great young arm to stick with going forward.
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Zimmermann is coming off a career year. He had career bests in strikeout, walk and home run rates as well as ERA, FIP, xFIP and SIERA. He became more a strikeout pitcher and less of a ground ball pitcher in 2014. He had his lowest ground ball rate since 2011, putting more of the game in his control and less in hands of the defense and luck. This adjustment set him up for his career year, leading him to the 10th best fWAR among all pitchers last year.
Zimmermann has also been a workhorse for the Nats. The past three seasons he’s made 32 starts. In 2011, he was held to 26 starts due to an innings limit. He did have to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2011, but he hasn’t suffered an injury that has caused him to miss a significant portion of time since. He’s proven that the wear and tear of the season doesn’t affect him as much as others and he can be counted on for a full season year after year. Obviously, no one is immune to injuries, but Zimmermann has been able to avoid them as well as anyone.
Strasburg, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as dominant as Zimmermann, but he by no means had a bad year. He had the 5th highest strikeout rate, the 19th lowest walk rate and the 25th lowest ERA among qualified pitchers. All that led him to having the 13th highest fWAR among pitchers, just 3 spots behind Zimmermann.
While he hasn’t performed at the level he did when he first burst on the scene in 2010, he’s still been one of the game’s best pitchers over the past three seasons. In just about every stat, Strasburg’s name rises to the top of the leader boards, but a name that almost always rises above his, is Jordan Zimmermann. Aside from strikeout rate where Strasburg ranks 3rd, Zimmermann out ranks him. This is largely due to Zimmermann’s sensational 2014 campaign. Looking at their combined stats from 2012 and 2013, they’re fairly similar, aside for Strasburg’s world class strikeout rate.
One huge advantage Strasburg has over Zimmermann is age. Zimmermann turns 29 this may, while Strasburg turns just 27 in July. Strasburg is yet to reach what is widely accepted as an athlete’s prime years, suggesting that we haven’t seen the best of him yet. Zimmermann took a huge step forward in his 5th season to get on to Strasburg’s level. Now, can Strasburg take a step of a similar length to blow past Zimmermann? It’s certainly a possibility, so don’t be surprised if in 2015, Strasburg moves on to the level of the Clayton Kershaw‘s, Felix Hernandez‘s and Max Scherzer‘s of the world.
One big advantage Zimmermann holds on Strasburg is his representation. Zimmermann is represented by Relativity Sports, while Strasburg is with the notorious Boras Corporation. If the Nationals believe that they won’t be able to keep both Zimmermann and Strasburg, they’ll have to think about the signability of them both. They know that Boras clients sign for nothing less than top dollar, so regardless how Strasburg’s next two seasons go, he’ll likely command more money than Zimmermann. Zimmermann might not be willing to sacrifice much, if any, money to stay in Washnington. Scott Boras has shown a willingness to ask for above and beyond what a player might be worth. We’re seeing it this offseason with Max Scherzer with rumors of an asking price that may be north of $200 million. The Nationals should expect whatever Scherzer gets this offseason to be at least the starting point in negotiations with Strasburg.
If you forced me to choose between these two today, I’d have to take Strasburg. The two are so close right now that I give the edge to the one with more room to grow. Both players should have better and brighter years ahead, but I’d be willing to bet that Strasburg’s will be brighter. Will he he cost more? Most likely, but he’s the kind of player who will make it worth it.