Brost got only four responses, and the teams that did wanted to look at Zimmermann as a catcher because he was undersized for a pro pitching prospect.
“He was the best catcher in the entire area,” Brost said. “The only reason I pulled him out from behind the plate was because I knew he could pitch and he had the ability to be really special. Did I see he’d be able to reach 95 mph? I’m not so sure I thought that was possible. It’s impressive. It’s amazing.”
Brost watches Zimmermann pitch now and chuckles at his size, and all of the power he can generate from his legs.
“I can’t believe how big his [butt] is,” he said with a laugh. “He told a couple buddies around town that he has to have all his pants tailor-made now because he’s built his bottom half up so much.
“But I think I’m very lucky to be part of that. Nobody gets that opportunity, to coach a big league player. Our whole town has that ownership of him.”
Establishing an identity
Zimmermann is not Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez. He did not march his way to the major leagues under unrelenting hype. He was not the centerpiece of a prospect package. He does not brood, like Strasburg. He is not gregarious, like Gonzalez. He has a quick wit, and talks plenty with his teammates and friends. Brost said Zimmermann was “probably the craziest kid you’ll ever meet” when around his friends despite his soft-spoken nature with others.
His 2011 innings limit, part of his rehab plan after 2009 Tommy John surgery, went largely unnoticed outside of Washington. He hardly knows any major league players other than his teammates. He chatted with Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee on his way to Citi Field on Monday. They talked hunting and fishing.
While his under-the-radar success makes it seem as though he could’ve been an All-Star last year, or perhaps even in 2011, Zimmermann also struggled for a time with throwing too many strikes — a stubborn unwillingness to waste pitches. As a result, he’d sometimes hit a wall in his starts, with high pitch counts in the fifth or sixth inning, and one bad pitch hit for a homer would ruin an otherwise strong performance.
It wasn’t easy for McCatty to get the idea across to Zimmermann that it’s OK — necessary, even — to throw pitches outside of the strike zone. It took time. It took trial and error. Mostly it took him failing enough times to listen.
“Kind of like chipping away on the ice going ice fishing,” McCatty said. “At some point, there’s a breakthrough.”
Early in the 2011 season, McCatty took Zimmermann into his office and bluntly laid out his thoughts on the right-hander’s progression. He could continue to throw a breaking ball and a hard fastball and pound the strike zone without regard for situations, or he could learn how to pitch.
“It was pretty much point-blank to him: Until the point comes when you decide that you’re going to make your misses where they should be instead of just saying, ‘I’m going to throw strikes,’ this is what you’re going to have,” McCatty said. “‘It’s a decision that you have to make.’ After that, he just took off.”
“Fishing and pitching are similar in the strategy part of it,” Zimmermann said, running through how he reads hitters now.
For example, if they’re late on the fastball, he won’t throw a change-up, which he might have in the past. “If one bait’s not working, you switch it up and put a different bait on. If the fastball’s not working, you switch it up and throw something else.”