Zimmermann, not Strasburg, leading Nats' rotation
Right-hander not going for strikeouts, is letting defense make plays
PITTSBURGH -- Right-hander Stephen Strasburg gets most of the publicity, but teammate Jordan Zimmermann has been the Nationals' best pitcher this year, with the stats to back it up.
Zimmermann is in the top 10 in almost every major pitching category, including WHIP (0.75), wins (five), ERA (1.64) and opponents' batting average (.168).
"Jordan was very consistent all of last year, and he has taken it to another level this year," manager Davey Johnson said.
General manager Mike Rizzo said another year of experience has helped Zimmermann get off to a great start this year.
"It's learning how to use all of his pitches that he has had in the past -- kind of mixing and matching -- and his confidence level is very high," Rizzo said. "When you see a pitcher or player take the next step in his career, it's very rewarding for the organization, especially when you drafted the player, develop the player and [you are] taking him from his infancy to becoming a real good big leaguer."
Unlike in the past, Zimmermann, 26, has decided not to go for strikeouts. Letting opposing hitters put the ball in play is the best way to go, he believes. Zimmermann always remembered what pitching coach Steve McCatty told him: "Don't go for strikeouts and don't walk anyone."
Zimmermann has followed McCatty's rules, striking out just 27 in 44 innings but walking only seven. If he is behind the count, Zimmermann is willing to let the defense behind him do the rest of the work. Zimmermann might allow a home run, but he is hardly going to walk anybody.
"When you strike guys out, you waste a lot of pitches," said Zimmermann, who will pitch against the Tigers on Tuesday. "You try to make nasty pitches in the dirt, and if the hitters don't swing, you get them back in the count and you end up throwing six or seven pitches to a hitter. You look up and you are throwing 90 pitches by the fifth inning. You are not going to pitch very long.
"I want to go deep in the ballgame. My way of thinking is to throw strikes, and I'm going to let you hit the ball. They've been hitting the ball where the defenders are lately."
Zimmermann had only pitched one complete game in his career before this season. He already has two of them this year. Zimmermann's most recent complete game was against the Reds on April 26, and it was arguably the best-pitched game in Nats history.
To prove Zimmermann's point: He didn't need a lot of strikeouts to get the job done against the Reds in a 1-0 win at Nationals Park. Zimmermann needed just 91 pitches to complete the game. He allowed one hit -- Xavier Paul's leadoff single in the third -- struck out four and had 12 ground-ball outs. Zimmermann started the game by retiring 12 of the first 13 hitters he faced. The Reds didn't have a runner in scoring position in the game.
"He is consistent. He can throw all of his pitches for strikes," said an American League scout. "He keeps the hitters off-balance. He is not predictable at all. He comes back and he challenges the hitter. He has really come a long way from the time he first came up to the person that he is today. He is a quality guy. In most cases, he would be the top pitcher in the rotation."
How does Zimmermann feel about being the top pitcher on the Nationals? He said it's a great honor, but he realizes that the Nats have a great rotation, which includes Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.
"I have a good little streak going on now right now," Zimmermann said. "As I see it, we are all equal, and a couple of other guys have hit a little bump in the road right now. In the end, we are all going to finish with pretty good numbers. Everyone is going to come around and start throwing the ball."
As far as personal goals are concerned, Zimmermann would like to reach 200 innings for the first time in career. He was 4 1/3 innings short of the mark last year.
"The biggest personal goal is the 200 innings," he said. "That means you are becoming one of the elite pitchers, if you can get 200 innings and have a solid ERA -- under 3.50 would be reasonable."
The way Zimmermann is going, he could end up with a contract extension soon. Rizzo broached the subject with Zimmermann's agent, Mark Pieper, not too long ago.
"We've discussed it with his agent," Rizzo said. "He is under our control for a long period of time. We really like him in the system, and hopefully he is around for a long time."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.