Less than two years ago, Washington Nationals pitcher Jordan Zimmermann was recovering from Tommy John surgery, itching to get back on a major league mound. Now, it’s likely he’ll be the team’s opening day starter on April 5th in Chicago. After it was announced that fellow pitcher Stephen Strasburg would be on an innings limit, the same should be done with Zimmermann.
Tommy John surgery in today’s game is as routine as hockey players losing teeth, but that doesn’t mean that teams shouldn’t be cautious with their hurlers. Zimmermann pitched 161 1/3 innings last year in his first full season since undergoing the procedure. Manager Davey Johnson says that the 25-year old is ready to be unleashed and has no innings limit, but think about this for a minute. Last year was the most Zimmermann pitched in a year by 30 innings, including the minors. Lets say that he makes the jump to 210 innings, a feat that 26 major league pitchers reached last year. That would be a 50 inning increase for a pitcher who had TJS in August 2009. Although it’s unlikely he won’t be able to handle the workload, statistics prove otherwise. Young pitcher that make that big of a jump in terms of innings tend to fatigue faster at the end of the year and that lags to the next season. The 2013 campaign is the year where most baseball people expect the Nationals to be a serious playoff contender and with their ace (or #2) pitcher potentially showing effects from the year before, their chances would dwindle significantly.
During his 26 starts last year, Zimmermann eclipsed 7 innings only once, a complete-game, 8-inning loss. Let’s say that J-Zimm averages seven innings a start for 30 starts. That would be the before-mentioned 210 innings, but it’s unlikely he’d reach that mark every start. A more reasonable peak should be in the mid-190s range and not put too much pressure on a pitcher that could make a potential jump to All-Star caliber this year. Washington has a solid bullpen and gets another year of development from Drew Storen and Henry Rodriguez. Their relief core may challenge the 2005 team as the best in franchise history and there are guys capable of providing the bridge to Storen in close games. Zimmermann, I think, will turn into a strikeout pitcher, putting more intensity on each pitch and making the innings watch that more important.
Jordan’s value to this team is impeccable and not just because he’s a great pitcher. The Nats organization used the same recovery and rehab schedule he followed, for Strasburg, who is on that same 160 innings limit Zimmermann was on last year. If the Nationals want to be perennial contenders in the suddenly dangerous NL East, the health of the front of their rotation is crucial. Don’t throw their ace (for this season) into the fire right away. Consider the fact that Jordan isn’t a free agent until 2016, the team has plenty of time. Sometimes, slow and steady, wins the race.