It wasn’t that long ago that Kyle Zimmer, Major League Pitcher was a pipe dream. Similarly, it wasn’t that long ago that Kyle Zimmer, Functioning Pitcher At All was a pipe dream.
Zimmer is an exercise in “what if” if there ever was one. The fifth overall pick in the 2012 draft, Zimmer was considered, along with Mark Appel and Kevin Gausman, to be one of the top college arms in the draft. Had Zimmer succeeded like the Royals were counting on him to, a cascade of events could have happened—maybe we’d have seen Zimmer’s debut out of the pen in the 2014 playoffs, and maybe the Royals wouldn’t have spent north of $70 million to acquire Ian Kennedy, thereby allowing them the money to sign Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, or Eric Hosmer after they hit free agency.
As we all know, that didn’t happen. Zimmer made his debut last year, in his age-27 season, out of the bullpen. That it happened at all was a miracle. A veritable cornucopia of injuries, including thoracic outlet syndrome, limited him to 74.1 total innings between 2014 and 2016 and zero innings in 2018. Finally, with no other options, Zimmer famously resurrected his health at Driveline Baseball.
Why am I spending 200 words discussing Zimmer’s past before getting into the 2020 season review? It’s simple: understanding where Zimmer is coming from is crucial to both evaluating him now and for appreciating where he is. Simply put, Zimmer has emerged as an above average bullpen arm with a full and nasty repertoire of pitches.
- IP: 23.0
- ERA: 1.57
- FIP: 2.37
- K%: 28.6
- BB%: 11.0
- bWAR: 0.7
Because of Zimmer’s lengthy injury history, Zimmer missed out on the kind of development that other pitchers must go through to get to the majors. As a result, his 2019 season, while his first season in the big leagues, was itself mostly a developmental season, as Zimmer had to re-learn how to pitch, so to speak.
As Alec Lewis outlined in an August 6 piece in The Athletic, 73-year-old Tom House and pitching legend called “the father of modern pitching mechanics” helped Zimmer identify and solve some mechanical problems:
“He was prematurely rotating into his foot strike,” House said, “which caused his arms to be outside the width of his body. And he had a little tilt in his head.”
In layman’s terms, the mechanical issue boiled down to Zimmer’s direction toward the plate. In lifting his knee and preparing to throw the baseball, Zimmer’s body turned away from the plate and toward second base, becoming too closed off.
“When you do that,” Zimmer said, “every force has an equal opposite force. So you have to pull open even more (on the way through the pitch).”
When Zimmer lowered his knee and set for his stride, he would “open” his left shoulder, letting it drift toward first base. To compensate, his right arm would attempt to overcorrect the movement, affecting Zimmer’s consistency.
And consistent Zimmer was. Among all American League relievers with at least 20 innings pitched, Zimmer was third in ERA and fifth in FIP. He got there with a relatively deep repertoire, a nod to his days as a starting pitcher prospect. Zimmer primarily used a mid-90s fastball, and his breaking pitchers were split between a low-80s slider and an upper-70s curveball. Zimmer also tossed the occasional changeup.
Perhaps most impressively, Zimmer never gave up more than one run in any of his 16 outings, and gave up zero runs in 12 of those 16 outings. Six outings were also at least 1.2 innings in length, and he maxed out at three innings in his August 1 game against the Chicago White Sox.
Unfortunately for Zimmer, his season was also cut short by—what else—injuries:
Kyle Zimmer’s season ended on September 23rd after this outing against St. Louis. He was placed on the Injured List with a “zinger” in his arm. And it wasn’t the first time that Zimmer was unavailable. Zimmer didn’t pitch in a game from August 6 until August 17, with arm fatigue as the culprit. Considering Zimmer’s history with such injuries, they put a damper on what was otherwise a fantastic year.
What does next year look like for Zimmer?
The Royals control Zimmer’s rights through 2026. He’ll make the league average salary of close to $600,00 for the next two years. Considering his excellent performance on the mound this year as well as his affordable salary, Zimmer is a lock for next year’s bullpen. If he can stay healthy—always a big if for Zimmer—he figures to be a part of the bullpen for the forseeable future. While he has the talent to be a starter, Kansas City’s starting pitching depth will keep Zimmer as a reliever.
But in 2020, after seeing Zimmer wander so long in the darkness of injury, it is exciting for him to see the light of day—and be a good pitcher, at that.
How would you grade Kyle Zimmer’s 2020 season?
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