Nationals Baseball: Good Night ZNN

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Good Night ZNN

Jordan Zimmermann occupies a funny spot in Nats history. The consensus right now is that he's been the best pitcher in Nats history. While I don't disagree, how we got to this point, where everyone says it with such certainty, is interesting.

It's true that the argument can be made and very strongly. He has that no-hitter. He has that killer relief appearance in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS. He has that near complete, 3 hit, 1 run game in the 2014 NLDS.  He has the most wins (70 to Stras/Gio at 2nd with 53), complete games (8 to Livan's 6), even most strikeouts (903 to Stras at 894) for now.

But those playoff starts are the epitome of small sample size and selective memory. He only was able to pitch relief in Game 4 because he got bombed in Game 2 - 3IP, 5ER. And he has the most appearances by far (178 starts to Lannan's 134) which means all the counting stats should be his. If we look at other stats, even limiting to 2011 and later so we carve out ZNN's early years learning on the job for a bad team, we don't see clear separation between him and others. Strasburg matches his ERA over that time. Gio's winning percentage is slightly better. Gio's been better at keeping the balls in the park. Strasburg has a better K/BB rate powered by a crushing lead in K/9. Both Gio and Stras in fact beat ZNN handily over that time in K/9 and opponent's OPS+. Outside of the strikeout lead, which ZNN makes up for with a strong lead in BB/9, none of these are big gaps, but you see on pure pitching talent ZNN doesn't come out on top.

Like I said, I'm not actually arguing that as of today ZNN isn't the best pitcher in Nats history. He has 2011 up on Gio and has pitched a step better since 2012. Strasburg has probably pitched a half-step better since 2012 but ZNN has been far healthier. The combination of quantity and quality wins out. But if we're being objective it's really "as of today". A great season by Strasburg next year or a surprise rebound by Gio and frankly it would be up in the air on paper.

But I doubt it would be up in the air with fans and ZNN is a good example of how all of us can get wrapped up in narrative. His emergence post-Tommy John was overshadowed first by The Coming of Strasburg and then by The Return of Strasburg, as well as by a Cy Young worthy year for Gio Gonzalez in 2012.  So despite being only 26 and putting up 2 seasons worthy of a #1 starter role somewhere he was #3 in the rotation to start the next year. Then 2013 happened.

The team floundered and the fans needed to blame someone or something. It didn't matter than Gio still pitched pretty well, he was only 11-8, he must have been a problem. And Strasburg? That joker was 8-9! He can't win! And he let the team shut him down! The tide turned away from Strasburg, who was hard to read and had no inclination to make people like him. He became the symbol of failed expectations. All that love moved to ZNN who managed to go 19-9 that year. He was the Joe LunchPail who brought it that fans, both the "smart" ones and the "heart" ones, could get behind. Nevermind that he wasn't any more lovable that Strasburg. He didn't disappoint so it didn't matter. Nevermind that in just the previous year fans were talking about how Zimmermann couldn't win, going 20-19 over the past 2 seasons despite good stats. They wanted a guy to rally behind and in 2013 ZNN gave them that. 2014 would validate that love as he'd put up clearly the best year on the team, punctuated by the no-hitter and the playoff appearance.

What about 2015?  That's a good question as the truth of the matter is he's been as disappointing as any starter. Doug Fister was worse, but most of us knew he was a time bomb. Gio pitched worse but relative to the previous year the decline was far slighter. Strasburg had his issues but was clearly injured. Why does ZNN get a pass? Same reason it took him so long to get recognized for his good performances. Back then he was overshadowed and his win total didn't reflect his performance. Now again he's overshadowed and his win total doesn't reflect his performance. Strasburg was hideous to start the year and took up much of the attention through June. Scherzer crashed in August and along with the team issues has taken up all the focus since then. That means the light might have shined on ZNN for two months and for those 2 months he was perfectly ok. Other than that you looked at the wins and said - still around tops for the team - and let it slide. The anonymity and luck that kept him from getting praise for years, keeps him from getting criticism for this one. 

Combine everything I said and you see why fans are so clear on ZNNs place in Nats history. They didn't have expectations for him, so while they talked about his lack of wins in 2011 and 2012 it was never a big deal. When the team, and in particularly Strasburg, seemed to flail in 2013, ZNN didn't disappoint and became the fan favorite. He backed it up in 2014 and gave the Nats two incredible performances to end the year. It was cemented. I've talked about this before but a lot of times winning over fans (and media for that matter) isn't about what you do but when you do it. It's not even a big game spotlight thing necessarily. Do you perform when we are paying attention to you, when we aren't distracted by other things? If so, you'll get love. If not, you won't. As long as he didn't bomb this year (he didn't), and Gio or Stras didn't put up amazing seasons (they didn't) he was going to go out #1 in their hearts. It was never the accumulation of solid performances. It was being not-Strasburg and then having a hell of 2014 season with an even better finish.


This all seems like I'm damning ZNN in some way and I don't mean to. He has been the best pitcher in Nats history. He's been the best pitcher in the "window" years.  He deserves all the praise he gets. He deserves the big contract he's going to get. And I think he'll be healthy and do great where ever he goes. I think what the Nats will miss most is the reliability. All those starts over 4 years. He hasn't missed a start over the past 4 years and really it's more like 5 years as 2011 was capped by an innings limit, not by an injury. How many pitchers haven't missed a start in the last 5 years? So let's say at least 155 starts? 14. And that's with a generous "not miss a start" definition. We've seen in the past few years that one of the hardest things to do is deal with injuries. With a guy like ZNN you didn't have to worry about that for 5 years. You could pencil him in and he'd be out there and would give you a performance that would give your team a chance to win. Quality start is a silly stat but it does give a vague sense of that standard, of how many times did you "do your job" in a sense. The names ahead of ZNN in QS% is impressive. Kershaw, Hamels, Cueto, Price, Greinke, Verlander, Felix, ZNN. (then Sheilds, Weaver, Dickey right after ZNN. That's about right as he's that kind of line of demarcation)

I think the fact I didn't have to think about ZNN is the thing I'll miss most about him. He would get the job done and as a fan I could worry about something else. There's always plenty to worry about. There is far less you can count on. You could count on ZNN.

22 comments:

SM said...

I have no idea if it holds any meaning, but none of the pitchers ahead of ZNN in Quality Starts has had--at least that I can determine--Tommy John surgery.

SM said...

. . . which may be another reason to admire ZNN's dependable, warhorse reliability.

Anonymous said...

Truly well-reasoned and well-written piece, thanks for this. I've read every post of this first-rate blog, Harper, and you've enhanced my understanding of and enthusiasm for the Nats this season. I am looking forward to reading what you have to say about the offseason and the run up to 2016. Thanks again.

Chaz R said...

Nice! Thanks Harper. A little bit of positivity in otherwise dreary depressing week. How appropriate the a hurricane is forecasted to hit the Mid-Atlantic at the end of this week!

Any thoughts on where ZNN might end up?

Harper said...

Chaz R - I'll say the Dodgers. They have the money. They have the Kasten. Giants are a strong contender too. Especially if the Dodgers have interest. The Cubs? While I think that would be his preference I think they might go all-in trying to get Price. Given Samardzjia and Cueto's AL troubles I think they'll be some hesitance for AL teams to get heavily involved, so I don't see him switching leagues.

Sammy Kent said...

Dependability is, after honesty, probably the most important quality in an employee. Someone that can be counted on faithfully rarely has to be better than adequate to be highly regarded. Jordan Zimmermann is dependable, and he for sure has been far more than adequate. IMHO he should have been the Opening Day starter for both 2014 and 2015. I know the chances are virtually zero, but I really wish there were some way he'd sign with us again.

Max David said...

I'll still miss him, and whatever team gets him is getting a quality starting pitcher. He's not an "ace" type pitcher, which is why it would be a bad idea for him to sign with Milwaukee or Arizona (I think they'll be sneaky on the market this coming winter, watch out for them!) because he'll automatically become their #1 starter, but if he went to the Cubs and got inserted behind Arrieta & Lester OR the Dodgers behind Kershaw and Greinke (if he stays with the Dodgers) or hell even the Mets if Alderson & Wilpon want to shell out some Ben Franklin's this year would be the better spots for him. No matter where he goes, I wish him the best of luck. My money's on the Cubs or Dodgers getting him.

Jay said...

I agree with most of this post, but I don't think Zimm is a true #1. He's great. He's reliable. He's not Price, Greinke, Kershaw, or even Sherzer the first half of this season. I'd sign Znn for what Rizzo offered, but I wouldn't give him $20 million a year. Some other team will. Last year's playoffs was great. But I agree with Harper's post that while the relief appearance in 2012 was awesome, the game 2 bomb was anything but. This year Znn let us down just like pretty much the entire rotation. If you're spending 20-25 million a year (which is what Znn wants) I'd get Price or Greinke, or even Cueto.

Also, I am curious to see if the Cards keep Heyward. Part of why the Cards are the organization they are is bc when they trade for someone they usually keep that person long term. I'd love to see an OF of Werth/Taylor, Harper, and Heyward.

VI said...

I checked before his last 2 starts, and he was ranked 28-32 in the pitching stats that matter. That's a good number 2 on all but a few teams. Add in that he takes the ball every 5 days, and someone's pitching staff will get markedly better next year.

JE34 said...

How do you define a "true #1"? Do you have to have "swing and miss stuff" to qualify? Because ZNN is not that guy. Yes, his turd-games were more frequent this year than in the last two... but he will leave a big hole in the rotation that Joe Ross and Tanner Roark won't easily fill (not individually, anyway).

Robot said...

I'll miss ZNN. He's been one of the few truly reliable players over the last few years. I still think the Nationals should make resigning him one of their top properties for the off-season (after canning MW and Pap, and replacing the entire bullpen), but i know it won't happen.

I expect he'll end up in Chicago, personally, but i guess we'll see soon enough.

Harper said...

Jay/VI/JE34 - the way I'd define ZNN is "Top of the Rotation : 2nd tier". You can't say there are only say... 5-8 guys who are #1s because there are 30 teams. That's clearly not the definition of a #1 but of something greater. They would be "Top of the Rotation : 1st tier". All TotRs can lead a rotation but the impact of the player and likely type of rotation they lead change. A TotR1 likely leads a league leading rotation and is expected to win big games. A TotR2 likely leads a league average rotation and is expected to keep the team in big games. A TotR3 likely leads a below leage average rotation and is hoped to keep the team in big games. A nonTotR player as your #1 would indicate a likely rotation in trouble.

It's all fluid but TotR1s would be Price, Greinke, Kershaw types. A TotR2 would be an ZNN, Hamels now, Shields, Lance Lynn type. A TotR3: Ubaldo, Ian Kennedy. A nonToTR.. Rubby De La Rosa, Jimmy Nelson, Buerhle now. This just gives you types using the sort of best pitchers on teams for most of the year. A lot of rotations aren't set up with their best pitcher as their actual #1, because a lot have a mix of guys closer together. Like the Cardinals may not have a TotR1 but have 4 guys that could fit in the TotR2 range. So the rotation is special without a special pitcher. Like I said fluid.

WiredHK said...

Can we get some more insight on why QS is a silly stat? I would think at least directionally it gives some decent "first-blush" information on what kind of a guy we're talking about. And, given the names ahead of him in the category (we can agree those guys are GOOD), is it really bad? I get that other stats measure things more precisely and try to rule out BABIP luck or fielder's help -- but...QS doesn't seem awful to me if we define it rationally. No?

Anyway, I really like ZNN and will miss his solid performance, as you note here. He brought his lunch pail and did his thing, and helped this team win two NL East pennants. Some other team is getting a good pitcher, even if he may not be totally worth what they pay him. He's earned the payday...

blovy8 said...

QS is silly because a 4.50 e.r.a. is not good. The last time you could argue for that being acceptable, Sosa knew enough English to answer questions, without even being under oath.

I don't think you can underestimate the way Zimmermann doesn't screw the little things up and avoids giving us headaches. He doesn't get goofy ouchies like Strasburg. He doesn't forget to cover first like Gio or take 20 pitches to get through a one-two-three inning. He doesn't roll his eyes or twirl around when an error is made. He might need a guy to catch a line drive or two, but they won't have to amuse themselves while he re-focuses for 30 seconds between pitches. He works fast and throws strikes - if he changed speeds, he could be Ray Miller's 70's Orioles pitcher poster boy. I bet if he didn't have that slight lisp he'd have more to say.

The only thing that ever worried me was that he doesn't have a change up. That probably was a good enough reason to not back the truck up, but we'll see. I still say he gets his 20 per for at least five and was right to say no to the Nats.

Jay said...

Harper summed up my point earlier. Znn is a great pitcher. He is a #1 on most teams. He is not Greinke, Kershaw, Verlander in his prime, Price, etc. I guess my point was if I'm paying 20-25 million per year for a top end guy then this offseason I want Greinke or Price. If Sherzer and Znn were both free agents last year I would have preferred Sherzer. Make no mistake Znn is looking for 6-7 years at 150-175 million. If I'm paying those numbers why not spend a little more and get one of the best. Of course Svrluga's article brings up a good point. The risk of letting Desmond and Znn go and signing other big name free agents is that the rest of the players feel like there is no loyalty in the organization. Which is rather ironic for the organization that shut down Strasburg compared to say the Mets and their mishandling of Harvey - not the innings limit or not but the fact that they pretended like they've never heard of an innings limit and put all of the blame on Harvey.

WiredHK said...

Blovy - I get that point, in the pure sense, especially if all of your starts are exactly the bare minimum qualification (3 runs in 6 innings). But if we're looking at a broad set of years (so, larger sample size), wouldn't we assume that (again, just directionally here) we're not going to get guys in the top of the list who have all, or mostly, QS's that meet only the bare minimum?

In other words, over time, to rack up a lot of QS's -- wouldn't we sort of assume many, if not most, of your starts that met the standards were actually much better than them?

Just wondering...

VI said...

Ranking 28-32 in key metrics means he's only a number one on maybe 12 teams, and a number three on a select few. At this point, you have to think teams will be bidding on WTSIWYG. Next year is his age 30 season, so it's unlikely his performance will spike up, but it's also probable you'll get the current performance for 3-4 years, it'll be the years after that on his contract that'll be high risk.

Bottom Line, I think he'll get plenty of interest from a lot of teams, but his only chance of "ace" money and years will be from someone like the Rockies, and money really isn't everything.

VI said...

Good article on MVP for stat heads.

http://grantland.com/the-triangle/2015-mlb-mvp-debate-bryce-harper-yoenis-cespedes-anthony-rizzo/

Anonymous said...

Wired/Blovy- I'd say that QS is a good stat, it just has a bad name. If we called it "decent start" or "not bad start" then it would convey what it really means - you were at least ok, and you managed to get the game to the 7th before the bullpen was called in. I think it's just the "quality" part that make it seem dumb, because yeah, 6 IP/3 ER isn't really quality.

Dave said...

He can be discussed in the light of "best ever", but as Harper (and others) point out, he is being compared to a somewhat low bar. I too will miss his turn in the rotation. You mostly knew what you were getting. This year was not different with the exception you were getting less than you did the few years prior.

Harper said...

Wired/Blovy/Anon - I wouldn't go as far to say it's a good stat. I think it's terribly flawed because the cut off doesn't reflect the reality. As we all kind of say 3R in 6IP really isn't "quality" so right from the beginning we have an issue. I guess a name change would help because I think we hear "quality" and think "good" (which is fair because that is the normal definition of quality) but really like Anon says this is more "not bad". Which pitchers didn't lose a game for you. But if that's the goal then I think we are looking at it backward. We don't want to know who gave you the most "not bad" games, we want to know who gave you the most "bad" ones. Which pitchers basically lost the game straight up for you. Actually...

I think what we are trying to grab is expected records. The expected record of your team based on your performance and see if there are any outliers who give the team a better (or worse) chance than you may think based solely on looking at the ERA. Hmmm that's something to look at in the offseason. I'll put it on my list.

Froggy said...

Excellently written, objective piece Harper.

ZNN was / is my favorite pitcher because he is a solid, no drama, no ego ball player. The stats might paint him as a 'tier two' pitcher but, how much of his statistical outcome (sample size) should we attribute to who was behind the dish calling his games?

Curious your thoughts on that part of the equation Harper, and or if you have delved into those stats?