Fantasy Baseball: Can Jordan Zimmermann Bounce Back?

The once-reliable righty endured a nightmare first season with the Detroit Tigers in 2016. Can he reemerge as a fantasy asset in 2017?

Jordan Zimmermann’s first season with the Detroit Tigers could not have gone much worse.

After a five-year run of low-key excellence with the Washington Nationals in which he was tied for the National League lead with 19 wins in 2013 and tallied a sterling 2.64 ERA in 2014, Zimmermann seemed downright snakebitten upon his move to the American League in 2016.

His 4.87 ERA last season was his worst mark -- by far -- as a full-time starter, and his track record of longevity was decidedly snapped, with multiple nagging injuries limiting him to just over 105 innings pitched after he logged no fewer than 195 innings in any of the previous four seasons.

The 30-year-old hurler now enters his second campaign with the Tigers as a near-invisible fantasy asset, with FantasyPros average draft position (ADP) data slotting him outside of the top 300 on draft boards.

Are early drafters sleeping on Zimmermann? Are there any indicators in his sudden and sharp decline to suggest that he is in line for a bounce back? Let's take a look.

Expect the Expected

Part of what makes it hard to give Zimmermann the benefit of the doubt as a fantasy asset is that, even at his peak, he’s never been much of a strikeout pitcher. His strikeouts-per-nine mark topped out at 8.2 during his awesome 2014 campaign with the Nationals, but that feels like an outlier, considering his career mark sits just under 7.3.

This paucity of punchouts also ensures that Zimmermann is rarely apt to outperform his basic skills as a pitcher, as is evidenced by the fairly clean alignment between his ERA and his Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) over the past four seasons.

Season ERA xFIP
2013 3.25 3.48
2014 2.66 3.10
2015 3.66 3.82
2016 4.87 4.84

Naturally, the one year in this sample in which Zimmermann notably outperformed his xFIP was the 2014 season -- when he overachieved on his strikeout rate while also limiting his homer-to-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB) to 6.4 percent, down from 9.5 percent the previous season.

His HR/FB clip jumped back to over 10 percent across his next two seasons, evidence perhaps of some bad fly-ball luck. But considering the ballooning of his xFIP in 2015 and 2016, this is much more likely to be evidence of a deterioration in skills.

The Case of The Cooled-Down Heater

As the fastball goes, so quite often goes the pitcher, and sure enough, Zimmerman’s steep drop-off in 2016 seems to hinge on the declining effectiveness of his fastball.

Zimmermann has lost two miles per hour (MPH) on that pitch since his peak year in 2014, when he averaged 93.8 MPH on the heater compared to 91.8 MPH last year.

This drop in velocity has coincided with a major dent in the pitch’s effectiveness. Look at how Zimmermann’s fastball graded in terms of walk rate (BB%), strikeout rate (K%), and isolated slugging percentage (ISO) over the past three seasons:

Season BB% K% ISO
2014 3.9 % 19.6 % .121
2015 4.8 % 11.9 % .154
2016 7.5 % 8.4 % .266

Hitters were sitting on that fastball, pummeling his cooled-down heater to the extent that Zimmermann significantly limited his use of the pitch relative to previous seasons. His fastball usage declined from over 70 percent in 2014, down to 62.5 percent in 2015, and way down to under 53 percent last year.

In place of the fastball, Zimmermann opted to rely more on his slider, but even that pitch was significantly less effective in 2016 than it had been for him in years past. With that slider, Zimmermann induced a measly 17.9 percent strikeout rate (compared to 32.5 percent during his peak 2014 season) and gave up a not-insubstantial .163 ISO (way up from the minuscule .045 ISO that pitch yielded in 2014).

It’s likely that the decline of his fastball had a cascading effect across Zimmermann’s entire arsenal. He’s never been a particularly hard thrower, but even a fastball approaching 94 MPH allowed Zimmermann to occupy three distinct velocity bands, with that fastball complimenting his 87 MPH slider along with an 80 MPH curveball -- all of which allowed Zimmermann to induce more weak contact and get out of jams without needing to whiff hitters at a high rate.

But with the fastball and slider inching closer and closer in terms of velocity, neither one has been particularly effective. And so Zimmermann is far less effective overall, and he has all of the earmarks of a pitcher in decline, including a career-worst strikeout-minus-walk rate (8.9 percent) and his worst homer-per-nine rate (1.2) as a full-time starter.

No Upside, No Thank You

As such, there’s no real upshot to banking on a bounce-back campaign from Zimmermann. Even if renewed health allows him to return to his innings-eating ways, his low-strikeout profile combined with clear skills depreciation renders him a rather unglamarous asset for fantasy purposes.

There is perhaps an outside chance that Zimmermann can regain his velocity along with his sustained health, but even if he does, 180 innings of upper-to-mid-3.00 ERA with about 7 strikeouts per nine seems like a best-case outcome -- and a remote one at that.

Granted, it’s not as if early drafters appear overly eager to take the proverbial flier on Zimmermann, since his current ADP as the 153rd pitcher off the board labels him as, at best, fringe bench fodder.

But even that bench spot might be better spent on pitchers with more upside as standard-league contributors. If current ADP data holds true, young arms like Michael Wacha, Tyler Skaggs, and David Phelps might very well be available in the late rounds for roughly the same cost as Zimmermann.

Fantasy owners once paid up for Zimmermann’s solid floor, but that floor has been lowered, making him an undersirable choice -- even late -- in 2017 fantasy drafts.