Prospect Retrospective: Jordan Zimmermann, RHP, Washington Nationals
Jordan Zimmermann has emerged as one of the best starting pitchers in the National League over the last two seasons: he's even out-pitched teammate Stephen Strasburg at times. Drafted from an NCAA Division III program in 2007, Zimmermann has successfully overcome more than one physical obstacle on his way to success.
Born in Auburndale, Wisconsin, (population 738) on May 23, 1986, Zimmermann played college ball at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a Division III baseball program. He posted a 2.28 ERA with a 103/20 K/BB in 87 innings in his sophomore season in 2006, drawing the notice of scouts that spring. He followed up with a spectacular summer in the Northwoods League, leading the league in strikeouts and ERA and pushing his name up draft boards into early-single-digit consideration, even drawing first round/supplemental buzz.
2007 got off to a rough start: he was hit in the face by a line drive while pitching batting practice; his jaw was broken in two places and he lost ten pounds while recovering. He also lost pitching time after having his wisdom teeth removed. He was still excellent when on the mound, however, posting a 10-0 record in 13 games (nine starts) with a 90/18 K/BB and a 2.08 ERA in 78 innings. He was very sharp late, earning Most Outstanding Player honors as a two-way contributor in the NCAA Division III College World Series.
Even with those numbers, he wasn't pitching at full strength for most of the year and his stock suffered accordingly. He fell to the second round, drafted by the Nationals. Showing some Midwestern common sense, he didn't waste time with pointless "last penny" negotiations or stupid contract posturing, signed quickly for $495,000, then went to Vermont in the New York-Penn League, where he posted a 2.38 ERA with a 71/18 K/BB in just 53 innings. I was quite high on him and gave him a Grade B entering 2008.
Zimmermann began 2008 with a strong start for High-A Potomac, posting a 1.65 ERA with a 31/8 K/BB in 27 innings with just 15 hits allowed. Promoted quickly to Double-A Harrisburg, he remained very effective with a 3.21 ERA in 20 starts and a 103/39 K/BB ratio in 107 innings, with just 89 hits allowed. Scouts were full of praise for his low-90s fastball, but they also saw potential in his slider, curveball, and changeup. They also liked his athleticism and makeup. I gave him a Grade B+ entering 2009.
Zimmermann had a strong spring camp and made the starting rotation as the fifth starter, although he didn't join the major league roster until April 20th due to scheduled off-days. He scuffled at times but generally held his own, posting a 4.63 ERA but a nice 92/29 K/BB ratio in 91 major league innings. Unfortunately his elbow gave out, requiring Tommy John surgery that cost him the second half of the season and most of 2010.
As you know, Zimmermann was quite good in 2011 (8-11 but with a sharp 3.18 ERA, 124/31 K/BB in 161 innings) and has been even better this year. Overall, in 473 major league innings, he has a 3.46 ERA, a 3.58 FIP and an 8.4 WAR. He's been extremely consistent since recovering from Tommy John, with a 3.4 WAR both this year and last year. Clocked as high as 97 MPH on his best days, he averages 93-94 with his heater, mixing it with a cutter/slider, curveball, and occasional changeups. His command is solid and he's had no problems with workload since fixing his elbow.
A cold-weather origin success story, Zimmermann shows that baseball talent isn't confined to big college programs or coastal regions.