Nationals Baseball: Jordan Zimmermann - the easy choice

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Jordan Zimmermann - the easy choice

The Nats need to sign Jordan Zimmermann.

I don't say this lightly. I say it because if you gave me $1000 and forced me to wager it on which National would pitch the best in the majors from 2015-2019 I would have to put that money on ZNN. Strasburg is an option, but has a couple of things I don't like going on. Giolito is too far out.

Why am I so bullish on ZNN? Last year was his best year ever as a pitcher. There's gotta be a best year in every career and usually it's due to some combination of talent peaking mixing with a healthy dose of luck.  But this didn't really hold true for ZNN, let's look at those stats that usually indicate luck has gone your way.

BABIP (rough range .250-.325)
ZNN : .302 in 2104, ~.290 career

This is actually the worst BABIP he has put up since his rookie year. You could argue that means he was actually unlucky last year and might get some bounce back the other way, but the take away right now is - no, not lucky with balls in play.

HR/FB (6.0%-14%)
ZNN :  6.4%, last 4 years ~7.5-8.0%

You might want to argue that ZNN got a little lucky last year with the homers and maybe he did get a tiny bit lucky but the truth is this is the pitcher he is. He does not give up home runs.

LOB% (66%-80%)
ZNN : 75.8%, 73.3% career

Perfectly normal numbers. Nothing lucky (or unlucky here)

So if he wasn't lucky why did ZNN have a great year? Let's take a look at a couple stats that are more often indicators of improved performance from the pitcher when we look at a single season.

ZNN : 40.1%, had been ~45% the past two years.

Generally GMs and coaches like GB pitchers because GBs can't become HRs and are least likely to become XBH. If you don't walk guys then it can take three GBs getting through the infield to score a run. But the facts are that FBs are more likely to be outs than GBs so if you can keep guys in the park, FBs are actually better. ZNN can keep guys in the park. His IFFB% (basically how often he gets a pop-up) has increased the past 5 years. 5.6% to 8.8% to 9.7% to 11.0% to 14.2%. 

K/9 BB/9
ZNN: 8.20 and 1.31, last three years ~7 and ~1.80

Here's a big one. ZNN walked fewer batter sand struck out more than he ever had. The improvement isn't obvious looking at his K/BB rate. That was 5th best in the majors last year but it's always good (14th from 2011-2013). Instead look at his K-BB rate, which is seen a a little better indicator of skill because it pulls out some "no walk" specialists. That was 12th last year, a marked improvement from the 38th he placed at from 2011-2013.

All this is a fancy stat way of saying - ZNN didn't luck into having the best year of his career. He pitched better than he ever has.

What is it you want from a pitcher, when it gets down to it? You want a guy who stays healthy, won't walk guys, won't give up home runs, and will strike out guys. Over the past 3-4 years I count a handful of guys (8 actually) who I'd put up there with ZNN. Now factor in age and cut out those more than 2 years older than ZNN and you're down to 5. Kershaw, King Felix, Price, Sale, and Strasburg*. That's the group that ZNN is in. That's what you are let walk away.

But Harper! He's getting older! Don't you have to worry about that?

That could be an issue so let's look at a couple things that might worry you; declining fastball speed and amount of pitches thrown.

That's beautifully consistent. Tears. Losing speed is not an issue with ZNN right now.

As for pitches thrown ZNN will be up there because he has thrown a bunch of innings, but the number of pitches he averages per inning is among the lowest in the league (14.6 7th in the majors, 3rd in majors last year)

I see zero concern going into 2015.

Another thing to note is how rarely ZNN blows up. Five games with a Game Score under 30 (basically unwinnable games for your offense) since 2011. It's hard to find guys that have pitched as much as he has and not had a number of bad games.

Jordan Zimmermann was a very good pitcher from 2011-2013. He was a great pitcher in 2014. He has shown improvement in several key areas. He has no worrisome tendencies on the mound. He has no red flags due to injury or workload. He almost always gives the team a chance at winning even on his bad days. He will be 28 when 2015 starts. If you're going to sign a long term contract with any pitcher over the age of 25 it's is difficult to find a better pitcher to bet on than Jordan Zimmermann right now.

*To parse it even more there is Group A which is Kershaw and Felix who are just awesome at everything. Then there is Group B Stras, Sale who are amazing K guys who might give up a walk and a homer here and there. Price's stats bounce around the two groups not really fitting in either but may have joined the elite Group A last year, we'll see. ZNN is an amazing BB and HR guy who didn't ramp up Ks till last year.


JWLumley said...

Could not agree more. I don't understand what Rizzo is thinking here or if it's just some leverage ploy. Pay the man, even if it means losing Strasburg in 2 years. NN is their best starter, has been their best starter and I believe will be their best starter.

Chas R said...

Hopefully Rizzo reads your blog Harper, or at least is looking at the same numbers. I must admit to being a Stras fan and think has the tools and talent to eventually blossom into an elite pitcher, but ZNN has unquestionably been the most consistently effective pitcher for the Nats.

Jay said...

I'm with you on 2015. Zimmermann is very likely to be one of the best pitchers in MLB. What I wonder about is your confidence in his abilities for 2016 and beyond. Any contract, I presume, would be at least six years. So ages 29-35. How many deals for pitchers in that age range turn out well? I haven't studied it, but I assume Rizzo has. Verlander is the scary example that jumps to my mind. That's what makes this a much harder decision than what you're suggesting. If I had $150 million to bet on any pitcher, maybe I'd be smarter to just keep the money and bet on something else.

Jimmy said...

I agree with nearly everything you state here, But I think it's been mentioned several times on fangraph chats that after the first tj surgery you are basically a ticking time bomb for your second. Have you ever come across any articles suggesting this? I can't find anything on it. While injury risk is just the nature of the game for ever it is especially random with pitchers I still think it's well worth the risk to resign him. Just trying to add a new wrinkle in the doldrums of an offseason.

Harper said...

JW - he's thinking "I can replace ZNN and Fister with Cole and Giolito and save tons. If I resign Stras and Roark keeps going that's a great rotation for the cost of one major signing" Of course there's a lot of ifs there. Probably too high on Cole, Giolito hurt his arm when it's probably most able to heal, Roark is still a ? at least for another year. I see the Nats being able to compete for a long time with little dip if they are willing to spend a lot. They may rather dip, expect to compete again soon and spend a lot less.

Chaz R - He has to be looking at the same #'s. Of course he's also looking at the #'s for Scherzer's contract and Lester's contract. Different priorities.

I like Stras a lot too but... we'll get to that in a couple weeks probably.

Jay - That's why I included velocity and pitches. Pitches could indicate wear (Verlander was middling at keeping pitches low and was often ridden hard) drop in velocity usually necessitates change in pitching (Verlander lost 1/2 MPH and then another .3 MPH in two years preceding contract). Also can be interconnected.

Short of it - some worries existed when Verlander extended (also a year older). I can't see any for ZNN. They don't necessarily come with warning though. (or at a certain age)

cass said...

Thank you.

This is exactly my thinking as well. Sign him. Pay what you have to. It'll be worth it. Fans pay the Lerners a lot of money to watch this team. This is what they need to spend it on.

They need to extend Strasburg as well, for what it's worth, cause if he puts up a monster season next year the price will go up. Like just happened with Zimmermann. They should have simply met his demands last year and they would've saved money. Maybe not with Desmond but if they did both, it'd probably be wash between them. Ah well.

Harper said...

Jimmy - not sure. I would think the logic goes "You were doing X. Killed that arm. You fix arm and keep doing X, eventually you'll kill arm again" Makes sense. Don't know off the top of head if things have changed - might have been throwing a bit harder in minors.

Harper said...

cass - I'd say the Nats priorities should be ZNN, Bryce, Stras, (Gaping gap) Desmond. Meaning if signing those three precludes siging Desmond then I'm ok letting Desmond walk,

Andrew said...

Harper I disagree the prioritys should be ZNN, Stras, Bryce, and Fister(only sign him on team friendly deal). I like Desmond but I have no confidence in him getting better or staying his current self. ZNN is consistent every year which is the argument for a long deal(even though I think his numbers will be a little worse in 2015)

I think sign ZNN, Stras if Boras allows it, and Bryce also with the Boras problem. We should try to get a two year deal with Fister even though it is unlikely he will do the deal at his age.

Andrew said...

If you are scared of injury just put in the contract that ZNN gets 20 mill if he makes 20 starts and 8 mill if not. 20 starts should still be made even with a few starts missed.

Jay said...

I wish I could be even a little confident that Zimmermann will remain the same pitcher for the next six years. But I look at the best pitchers in MLB last year, and Wainwright is the only one I would even dream of paying what Zimmermann will get when he's 31-35.

Maybe the way to look at this from the Nats' perspective is extending the window. If Zimmermann is likely to remain a first-tier starter for the next three years, it may be worth the risk of a decline in the last three years, when hopefully Giolito or Cole will pick up the slack at a relatively low cost.

cass said...

Recent contracts that have incorporated TJ risk have added an extra year at 1m if the player misses a year, I believe.

Wally said...

Harper - Agree on resigning him, but everyone has a price point. I assuming his range is 6 years and between $120m-$150m. Would you take him wherever you could get him in that range? Above it? 7 years?

I think there is no way either JZ or Fister engage in extension negotiations until Lester and some others come off the board. The market is being reset right now, and it isn't going down, so they would be foolish to negotiate until they updated their comps.

For me, I would pay market to extend JZ and Fister, let Desi play out the year and then decide on him, and think hard about trading Stras this offseason as a way to pick up another core piece for an extended run. I love Stras, but think he has the most trade value because of two years of control and they can't extend all of them.

Andrew said...

Cass thanks.

Chinatown Express said...

Does the hype around Stras when he was drafted help or hurt his trade value now? If his name had been Schmevan Scrasburg and he'd been drafted in the fifth round out of Nowhere State, would he be worth more or less? I could see it going either way. Strasburg's fame would help a bubble team sell jerseys and season tickets. But a GM might be hesitant to buy into a player who is (perhaps unfairly) seen as a bust.

Slim shady said...

If I were the Lerners I would resign Znn and Fister and maybe Desmond. I'd then think hard about trading Roark or Cole or even Giolitto for an impact bat. It's not my money though. That is probably why they are worth Billions (yes that is a B) and I am not.

I don't understand why we have to let people leave. It's all relative. Sign Znn and Fister and then the minor league pitcher depth maybe becomes expendable. If Znn or Fister won't sign then sign Lester or Sherzer. Said minor league depth is still somewhat expendable. Then you could trade whoever doesn't sign for more depth.

Unfortunately, I think they sign none of the pending free agents. I think they don't sign a big name free agent. I think the Lerners are Very conservative with bigger contracts. I think they look at Zimmerman, Yuneski Maya, and "Smiley" Gonzalez and say we don't want to extend anyone right now and we don't want to be active in the big contracts of the international market. The only big free agent the Nats have signed is Werth. I don't see that changing now. It's a little disappointing. I get the feeling that the Nats care more about the bottom line than winning it all. Look at the bullpen mess the last two years. Blevins did ok, but he was a trade target. We didn't spend on a lefty.

Oh well.

Froggy said...

I've been saying ZNN was the best pitcher on the staff since 2011, glad to hear others are finally on board. He has been a bargain up to now, so pay the man what he wants and end this silliness.

My priorities would be ZNN, Fister, Strasburg, and Desmond last. I would deal Desmond in a second to keep the previously mentioned pitchers long-term.

Wally said...

I think that may be a little unfair to Rizzo and the Lerners. What seems more accurate is that they don't like spending big, long term dollars on pitchers. ZIM was the only significant bat they had, and they locked him up. They have been trying with Desi, and we'll see if they actually let him walk. Who else was really good that they let walk? Dunn? The Hammer? Da Meat Hook? And as far as not playing too much in the high end FA game, that's true but they bet on their internal guys, and by all accounts, they were right.

And let's see if that pitching/contract philosophy holds, because they certainly have as good a test case coming up as I could imagine in JZ and then Stras.

And Stras is really, really good. I only suggested trading him because he has two years left. If the terms of control where switched between he and JZ, I would have flip flopped them in the sign/trade discussion.

blovy8 said...

Does anyone know what Zimmermann was asking for during the extension negotiations, and whether that was fair at the time? The thing is, since apparently the code for "fair" would seem to be market rate now, it should also be market rate a year from now. I believe there's more risk on the player's side. We don't actually know what he would sign for, but if things stay cordial, the Nats would still have a better shot at keeping him than anyone, since he will have his options cut down by his qualifying offer. The Nats could probably afford to be the biggest bidder then, or if not, will have more information on what he should be worth than any other team, plus the benefit of seeing what 2015 does to his value. The danger in not signing him is only worrisome if you cannot improve the team in a different way if he gets a big overpay.

blovy8 said...

I think the Nats actually weren't that far off on value with Desmond and the 7/107 if he's going to start his decline at around 30 - that's really 6/96 taking out this last arb year. He's not in Tulo's class, nor had the huge years like Reyes. That's a pretty good amount of years. A few more million could do it. If he loses a bit more value next season, he'll be looking at something like a Peralta deal or worse.

Zimm is already getting paid like Anibal Sanchez which seems decent until you look at the Homer Bailey 5/95 extension. That really screwed things up, but you get those crazy discount deals like the one Burnett gave the Pirates and nothing makes sense again. If his asking price is Greinke money or whatever Lester is getting, are you doing that, Harper?

Richard Parker said...

This all reminds me of when the Orioles let Mike Mussina go to the Yankees in 2000. Similar pitchers, similar situation. The Nats have to keep ZNN.

John C. said...

It's good to cite Mussina as your comp, since he may well be the only example of a team getting full value for a big money deal for a pitcher. "Not to worry though - this situation is different!" - said fans of every team signing a pitcher to a big $$ long term deal.

JWLumley said...

@Harper Let's hope that's not Rizzo's plan, because putting a bunch of faith in Cole and Roark is a foolish plan. Repeat after me Riz, There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. NN is a short arm pitcher, which historically have been more dependable. We also never have to worry about nekked pictures of him and Kate Upton hitting the interwebs. What's more is that NN can locate, which--to me at least--is the biggest factor in pitchers being successful after their primes. Pay the man!