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November 30, 2015

Transaction Analysis

It's All Happening, 'Mann

by R.J. Anderson and Mike Gianella

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DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Reportedly agreed to sign RHP Jordan Zimmermann to a five-year deal worth $110 million. [11/29]

When Al Avila was named Tigers general manager in early August, he stressed his commitment to winning in 2016. His comments felt hollow at the time; after all, they came within days of the free-falling Tigers raffling off David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria to the highest bidder. Yet looking back on them now, Avila's words seem less like standard exec prattle and more like an honest declaration to keep his foot on the pedal. Avila had already acquired a new closer and (potential) center fielder by Sunday, when he agreed to the Tigers' first nine-figure contract of the post-Dombrowski era.

In exchange, the Tigers are getting Zimmermann, an argument about predictive value—oh, and maybe a well-above-average starter who can slot in behind Justin Verlander and push the Tigers closer to the Royals.

Depending on your stance, Zimmermann is either one of the market's most sure or unsure quantities. Since being eased back into action in 2011 following Tommy John surgery, he's started at least 32 games in four consecutive seasons; had he recorded one more out in 2014, he would be at three 200-inning efforts in a row and counting. Zimmermann's ERA has fluctuated between good and great during those years, but all the while he's remained a reliable strike-thrower who won't celebrate his 30th birthday for another six months. Viewed from this light, yes, Zimmermann is someone you'd want as your second- or third-best starter for the next five seasons. Why not?

Season

IP

ERA+

SO/BB

WARP

2011

161.1

120

4

2.4

2012

195.2

136

3.56

3.3

2013

213.3

116

4.03

2.7

2014

199.2

141

6.28

3.4

2015

201.2

110

4.21

2.2

The "not" in this case has to do largely with Zimmermann's fastball velocity. Last season, his heater clocked in at 93.4 mph, or more than a mile slower than it did in 2014, according to Brooks Baseball. Pair that with his home-run total (he allowed 24, three-fourths as many as he had in the previous two seasons combined), and you don't need any extrasensory abilities to get the vibe that something might be wrong with him. But is that fair? Is that sound? Are we falling victims to false precision? Are we just looking too hard—or, perhaps, not hard enough—for fire when there might not be any to be found?

Like everything else, the answer depends on your context. If you trust our free-agent rankings, the pitchers on the market better than Zimmermann are David Price, Zack Greinke, and Johnny Cueto. You can nitpick each of those pitchers the same way we're doing with Zimmermann. To wit, we ignore that Price suffered (and survived) a larger decrease a few years back; we overlook that Greinke nearly won the Cy Young award while throwing his slowest average fastball—and that he's leaked velocity for the better part of the last six seasons; we forget that Cueto's velocity has consistently fluctuated; and so on.

It all comes back to a point Sam Miller made three years ago about Dan Haren: velocity loss is as much a fixture of pitching as the rosin bag. The key is being able to adjust to that velocity loss. Haren did it. Price did it. Greinke did it. Zimmermann? He seemed to do it in 2015. No, he wasn't as brilliant as he was in 2014, but if he gives the Tigers that effort in three of the next five seasons, we'll probably remember this as a decent contract; if he does it in four, we'll probably call it a good one; and in all five? Then we'll know this tea leaves business is really just a dressed up game of chance.

That's not to suggest there are no reasons for concern with Zimmermann. Maybe his velocity loss is a portent; maybe he gets hurt in July and spends the ensuing four and a half seasons playing out the string with reduced stuff and effectiveness. What it does suggest, though, is that we don't know. We don't know the cause or the effect. Zimmermann could be hurt, he could just be aging, he could be hurt and aging. You can work yourself into whatever conclusion you want by examining the microtrends, but sometimes they don't affect the macro. And sometimes they do. Which one is this? We don't know.

Contrariwise, Zimmermann's woes with lefties have obvious ramifications. Even with his shift from changeups to curves, he remained unable to master lefties. It's not so much that Zimmermann has a multi-year True Average split nearing 40 points—Max Scherzer, whose departure from Detroit spiritually precipitated this move, has the same gap between his platoon numbers—but that Zimmermann isn't as good against righties as the best pitchers in the game. Scherzer can have a wide distance between his performance versus lefties and righties while still holding lefties to below-average marks overall; Zimmermann cannot, and the hope here is that the Detroit staff can help him figure out some trick, any trick, that will allow him to combat the platoon disadvantage. —R.J. Anderson

Fantasy Impact

Jordan Zimmermann

He’s bound to bounce back, or at least that’s the conventional wisdom after a subpar season that saw Zimmermann put up his worst ERA since his first full season in 2011. The reality is that Zimmermann’s DRA has always suggested that a good deal of luck has always been on his side, and now he moves from the extremely pitcher-favorable NL East to the rigors of the American League and the disadvantage of facing the DH. The change-of-scenery rationale is going to trick many into pushing Zimmermann’s price back up to near elite levels, but it will be a mistake to duplicate 2015 and draft Zimmermann as a Top 15 mixed league pitcher this year. Zimmermann could very well be fine on the field from a real life/WARP perspective, but the change in venue and league is going to sting in fantasy. Don’t pay for career ERA. Even if Zimmermann somehow manages to get as many win chances on the fading Tigers, he’s still more likely to come closer to 2015 statistically than to return to a sub-3 ERA and near-elite fantasy form. —Mike Gianella

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here
Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

Related Content:  Detroit Tigers,  Jordan Zimmerann

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