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.