It took five years and $110 million for the Detroit Tigers to bring right-handed starter Jordan Zimmermann into the fold. That’s hardly a small token, though these days, that still qualifies as a second-tier contract among starting pitchers. If you look at traditional rate stats — strikeouts and walks, for example — Zimmermann clearly belongs in that second tier; he’s not the pitcher guys like Cole Hamels and Jon Lester have been over the past five years. He also doesn’t have their stuff, at least not when judged by the strikeout. What Zimmermann does have is much harder to get a handle on. The basic term would probably be his unique command, but it’s not an easy thing to put your finger on when it comes to stats.
A pitcher with great command might intentionally throw a ball outside the zone — even at the risk of walking a hitter — on purpose. So we can’t just use walk rate to determine command. But pitchers with great command also have a tendency to get to two strikes quickly without being damaged as hitters sit back and look for better pitches to hit. Elite pitchers also can do this, but more because hitters can’t hit their pitches, and the elite guys can also finish off hitters with that stuff. But in many cases, what makes a second-tier pitcher just that is they don’t have that put-away stuff.
That definitely describes Zimmermann, whose 7.32 K/9 rate ranked 50th of 78 qualifying pitchers. But here’s the thing about the Wisconsin native: When it comes to getting to two strikes, Zimmermann is among the elite. And though the swinging (or called) strike three is a lot more glorious, as it’s the surest way to get the out, Zimmermann has proven just as effective as getting hitters out once he gets two strikes.
The relative lack of K’s, the “second-tier” label … these are reasons Zimmermann, still in the prime of his career at age 29, could be had for $22 million per year versus the bigger dollar figures we’ve seen in recent years. But here’s the thing: He’s a better value than many of those making more money, including the aforementioned Hamels and Lester, and here’s why:
Strike Three Pays
Strike three is the best way to avoid any potential defensive miscues and get that out. And the pitchers that get strike three the most get paid the most.
Just take a look at the top free agents by yearly salary, with their strikeout rates and ERA- (park and league adjusted ERA) over the last five years. Zimmermann slots in just about where he should if you’re just paying for strikeouts.
|Pitcher||Strikeout Rate||2016 Salary||ERA-|
It is interesting to see that Zimmermann hangs with the meat of this list in ERA- while being paid less than most of them. That might have something to do with getting to strike two as much as getting to strike three.
Getting to Strike Two
In order to get strike three, you have to first get to strike two. And, though we like the swinging strike, it’s obvious that there are crafty ways to use command to get the looking strike as well. And there’s evidence that called strikes and looking strikes are just as sticky year to year.
So it’s noteworthy that only nine starting pitchers have been better at getting to strike two than Jordan Zimmermann over the last five years. At the top of the list are Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, two pitchers that are great at also getting strike three. The relationship between getting strike two and strike three is pretty tight.
But lower on the list, surrounding Zimmermann, are also a different kind of starting pitcher — Phil Hughes, Jake Peavy, and Drew Smyly. We’re not talking about the swinging strike as much with these guys. They rely a little more on command.
Look at a graph of strike two rate versus strikeout rate below, with the names there if you hover over the dot. It’s a relatively tight fit line. But look at the colors of the dots — the red dots are good at hitting the outside edge of the strike zone, the green dots are not. Look at how the pitchers that get more strikeouts out of their strike twos and are above the line have green dots. The pitchers below the line have more red dots, and better command, as a group.
If you prefer buckets or numbers, take a look at how the outliers above and below the line fare on a few key stats. Edge%, created by Bill Petti, tells us in this case how good the pitcher is at hitting the outside edge of the strike zone. SwSTR% is swinging strike rate, or whiffs per pitch.
The pitchers that make the most of getting to strike two have more swinging strike stuff. Jordan Zimmermann has an above-average Edge%, an average swinging strike rate, and an average strikeout rate. He fits the command grouping much more than the stuff grouping.
Is Getting to Strike Two Good Enough?
So Zimmermann gets to strike two with the best of them, but doesn’t have the elite stuff of the top aces in order to get the best strikeout rates. If you gave him the same ability to turn strike two into strike three as guys like Hamels and Lester, he would have better strikeout rates than guys like Hamels and Lester. And he’d get paid more. Simple enough.
Except that the teams are paid to get outs, not just strikeouts. And in most ways other than the strikeout, Zimmermann is hanging with guys that get more Ks and more dollars. Check him against his higher-paid brethren in the past five years, and his stats are right there, if not better than a couple of them.
The last three columns are park and league adjusted, where 100 is average. Zimmermann is great at ERA, but when it comes to estimators that rely on strikeouts and walks, he falls to the back of the pack.
But here’s the thing — Zimmermann is elite at getting to strike two, and things happen when you get to two strikes. The batting average on balls in play goes down from .291 to .281, Rob Arthur found on FiveThirtyEight. And it’s easier to avoid the heart of the plate more with two strikes, which is where home runs are born.
Zimmermann’s BABIP and home run rates are both better than league average. So when we correct for those facets of the game like we do when we calculate things like FIP, we make him look like a second-tier starter with a contract that makes sense. But Zimmermann is great at getting to situations in which BABIP and home runs are suppressed.
When it comes to aging, it’s possible that Zimmermann’s command-first approach is the better way to go. Walk rate ages much better than velocity and swinging strike rate, we’ve seen. Velocity and strikeouts cost more than command.
It looks like Zimmermann has a skill that helps him be better than the component parts that fuel big salaries. If you give him credit for that elite ability to get to strike two, he’s every bit the pitcher of a Cole Hamels, Justin Verlander, or Jon Lester… just cheaper.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.