It's hard to drag Stephen Strasburg away from his favorite clubhouse activity -- putting. On days he doesn't pitch, the Washington Nationals ace will spend whatever free moments he has between his pre-game workout and batting practice calmly lining up putts using a bottle of water as the cup. He doesn't say much, a spare word to a teammate here or there. That is, unless you want to talk to him about rotation-mate Jordan Zimmermann.
"I've learned a lot from Jordan," Strasburg says, setting down the putter. "We went through similar paths coming back from Tommy John [surgery], and he really helped me through that process. To this day he really goes out there and pitches like there's not a care in the world. For me, with the hype and expectations every time out, I admit sometimes I let that creep in there. You have to stay even keel, and he does a really good job of that."
If it seems odd that a story about Zimmermann would begin with an anecdote about Strasburg, well, that's the reality inhabited by Zimmermann, who has spent almost his entire five-year career pitching in the shadow of the former No. 1 overall draft pick. He isn't even the Nationals' most famous Zimmerman, an honor reserved for franchise third baseman Ryan (who spells his last name with one 'n'). In fact, with Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, both former All-Stars, fronting Washington's rotation, Zimmermann is overlooked enough that he could probably blend right in with the many tourists who throng the capital city every summer. And he doesn't mind a bit.
"Those two being the 1-2, they get all the hype and publicity, but I'm fine with that," Zimmermann said at his locker one day recently. "I'll sit back in the weeds and be overshadowed, it doesn't bother me at all. The less people know about me, the better."
Despite, or perhaps because of, his best efforts, Zimmmermann has started to make a name for himself. By many measures, the 27-year-old is having the best season of his career. He enters his start tonight against the Giants tied for the NL lead in wins with 13 and has a 3.10 ERA through 23 starts. He made his first All-Star team and was part of the early Cy Young discussion before Clayton Kershaw went all Bib Gibson on the league. Yet Zimmermann still might be the best young pitcher nobody talks about.
The story of Washington's anonymous pitcher begins in an anonymous Wisconsin town. Zimmermann grew up in Auburndale, Wis., which, as he notes proudly, is right in the middle of the state, about 130 miles due north of Madison. "The centermost town in the state is about 20 minutes away," he says in an accent that could only be described as authentically Wisconsin, a little nasally with long vowels. Auburndale's population is 703, making it small even by rural America's standards.
Auburndale is a great place to raise a hockey player or a dairy farmer, but it's a challenging place for a kid obsessed with baseball. Long winters limit baseball to the summer months. While aspiring major leaguers in Texas and Florida could get on the field in January, Zimmermann had to wait for warm weather that might not come until May or June. Those winters meant short high school seasons with precious little time spent on the mound. It also meant Zimmermann didn't have enough opportunity to show what he could do. He went undrafted after his senior year of high school in 2004 and unrecruited by the nation's top programs. He opted for the nearby University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a Division III school not really known for churning out major leaguers.
Zimmermann was good in his first two years with the Pointers, but dominant as a junior. He went 10-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 78 innings, vaulting himself up draft boards. In 2007, three years after no one wanted him, the Nationals selected Zimmermann in the second round of the amateur draft.
He moved quickly through the Nats' minor league ranks, ascending to No. 41 on Baseball America's top 100 prospect list heading into the 2009 season. He made his debut that April, allowing one run in six innings in a win over the Braves. But in July, he blew out his elbow, an injury that required Tommy John surgery.
"It was tough, I didn't really know what to expect," Zimmermann says, looking back on his rehab process. "They said 12 to 18 months, but I looked at it as coming back in 12 months. I just worked extremely hard and built the shoulder up and did everything they asked of me for the elbow."
His last start before the injury was July 18, 2009. His first start after it was Aug. 26, 2010. It may not have been the 12-month recovery he hoped for, but 13 months isn't bad, either. It also came in handy when Strasburg suffered the same injury just days before Zimmermann's return. Strasburg credits Zimmermann in part for helping him with his on-field approach once he was able to return.
"He's the type of guy who doesn't really change his gameplan," Strasburg says. "This game is tough and it will humble you. You got to keep going out there regardless if you have a great game or have a bad one," a mentality Zimmermann helped him adopt after his surgery.
With Strasburg back to full health last year, the Nationals rolled to a franchise-record 98 wins and the NL East title. They were expected to repeat this season, but instead struggled to a 13-14 April, setting the stage for a season's worth of disappointment. Zimmermann, though, enjoyed his most successful half-season to date, going 12-4 with a 2.58 ERA before the break.
He's pitching deeper into games this year, tossing three complete games and pitching eight innings in another three outings. Before this season, he had gone the distance just once in 81 career starts. Zimmermann says his newfound changeup, which he has been struggling to develop since breaking into the majors, as well as a pitch-to-contact mentality, has allowed him to stay in games longer.
"I just developed the changeup this year. I've been working on it a few years and I finally found a grip that feels comfortable," he says. "I like throwing it to lefties. It gives them another pitch to worry about.
"A few years ago I was trying to strike everyone out. Now I try to just throw strikes and let the hitter put the ball in play. They're going to get themselves out more times than not. You get early contact and keep the pitch count down, and you can stay in the game a lot longer."
Zimmermann's numbers this season back up his words. His walk rate is a career-best 4.7 percent. He's getting 1.56 ground balls for every fly ball, by far a career high, and has induced 17 popouts. Unless something strange happens, he'll set a new personal record in that category, as well, eclipsing last year's 19.
He may not be trying to go strikeout-for-strikeout with his rotation-mates, and the numbers bear that out; Zimmermann's 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings would be the lowest mark of his career. However, he's getting hitters to swing and miss at 8.5 percent of his pitches. The only season in which he surpassed that was 2009, the season cut short by Tommy John.
"He's maturing," says Steve McCatty, essentially the only pitching coach Zimmermann has known in the majors (McCatty took over as Washington's pitching coach in June 2009). "Part of pitching is that experience will teach you to be a better pitcher. He has added the changeup to complement the other pitches he has, but what he's doing is he's not giving in, he's not just always throwing fastballs once he's behind in the count. He has learned how to pitch."
Though Zimmermann's fastball sits in the mid-90s and can touch 97 mph on occasion, his slider had been his most effective pitch, according to Fangraphs. In 2011 and 2012 combined, the site found that he saved 1.28 runs per 100 pitches with the pitch, ranking 16th in the majors. Still, he tweaked his repertoire further this year, trading in a large portion of sliders for curveballs.
"We talked about it [during the offseason]," McCatty says. "It's not necessarily by design because his slider is so good, but a lot of times it's hard to have a really good slider and a really good curveball on the same day. Before he might have forced it and still tried to throw a slider, but now he is learning what works for him that day and trusting himself."
According to Fangraphs, his curve has been his second-most effective offering this season, and the 16th-best deuce in the game. For Zimmermann, it's about being a bit more unpredictable and keeping the hitters off balance.
"With fastball-slider, hitters can adjust to two pitches. I wasn't really throwing my curve all that much, but I've been throwing that a little more and now I can mix in a changeup, so it gives them four pitches to think about when they're up there."
As Washington's season winds down, it's hard not to think about 2014. The Nationals are still young enough and talented enough to believe they'll be right back in contention next year, so there won't be much time for Zimmermann to enjoy his breakout season. After all, major league winters are a whole lot shorter than those in Wisconsin.