VIERA, Fla. — As the ball came toward him Thursday morning, Wilson Ramos thought he knew what it was. Fastball, his mind told him. Had to be. He’d caught Jordan Zimmermann plenty of times. He knew the way the pitch looked, the way Zimmermann looked when he delivered one. Fastball.
He was fooled.
Ramos closed his glove too soon. The pitch, a changeup in fact, was much slower than he’d expected. It bounced into his glove and out. Over Zimmermann’s shoulder, pitching coach Steve McCatty clomped his thumb to the rest of his fingers, pantomiming closing the glove, and smirked at the catcher.
“That,” Ramos said, “was a pretty good changeup.”
Just how long as the Nationals’ right-hander been working on that changeup?
“How long has he been here?” McCatty quipped on Saturday.
“That’s the thing about Zim,” McCatty said. “I always say, as a thought process for a pitcher: know what you’re going to get beat on, know what you’re not. Certain situations you don’t want to go to your third-, fourth-best pitch. That’s why he’s been stubborn in a sense, because he knows what he wants to do and what he’s going to get beat on, if it were to happen. He’s got such good other stuff, that he’s kind of not used it as much as he should. Now that he feels more comfortable throwing it, that’s a plus.”
Zimmermann is a power pitcher. A fastball, slider, curveball kind of guy. And those three pitches can be so good that the right-hander has more than gotten by with minimal use of a changeup. In 2011 and 2012, Zimmermann threw it just 2.2 percent of the time according to Fangraphs.com.
But he’s been working on it for years, evolving it from a two-seam changeup that never made much sense since he throws a four-seam fastball, to a split-fingered pitch, and ultimately landing with more of a circle change. Last year he wanted to get comfortable enough to use it a handful of times in a game, maybe five or six, to keep hitters guessing.
This year it may be more of a weapon for him on its own.
“It’s better,” Zimmermann said. “It’s not great, but it’s better. I threw some really bad ones (on Thursday) too, but there was a few that were pretty good. I’m happy with the progress, it’s just going to take a lot more work.”
Over the winter, whenever Zimmermann played catch, he’d throw it “a bunch.” What he’s found is if he can get more extension on the ball, he can slow it down — and hopefully fool hitters as easily as he fooled Ramos on Thursday.
“If I stick with what I’m supposed to do and stay on top of the ball and get extended it’s usually good,” he said. “Sometimes, I don’t know if it’s lazy or what, but I get on the side of the ball and sometimes it doesn’t come out good. It’s just the muscle memory part, I guess.”
The benefit of diversifying his arsenal is obvious. That was the point of adding the pitch in the first place, to make it so hitters couldn’t only look for offspeed pitches or fastballs from the 26-year-old. Manager Davey Johnson said it’s another example of how the right-hander has an even higher ceiling.
But there is a difference between having a pitch to use mostly as a decoy and having one that can get hitters out.
To that end, Zimmermann plans to throw a good amount of them during the spring.
“I think he’s going to make the club,” McCatty joked about the guy the Nationals’ just agreed to pay $5.35 million to this season. “So, yeah, I’d like to have him (throw it a lot this spring).”
“I’ll definitely use it more in spring training to get a little better feel for it and we’ll see how it goes,” Zimmermann said. “But hopefully I can throw it a lot more.
“I’m satisfied. Not happy, but satisfied.”