MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Zimmermann proving he is worth his contract

Zimmermann proving he is worth his contract

KANSAS CITY -- It can be difficult to speak of a bargain free-agent pitching contract when the market is made up of nine-figure deals.

But even with that disclaimer, the Detroit Tigers' deal with free-agent starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, relative to the rest of the high-end pitching market, looks like time and money very well spent.

Zimmermann was not involved in the decision Sunday, pitching against the Royals. But he was involved in displaying his typical tenacity and competitive nature.

The Detroit bullpen was fatigued, having been battered the last two nights as the Royals scored 26 runs. The Tigers desperately needed innings. Zimmermann gave them more than that.

With the temperature once again reaching into the 90s at Kauffman Stadium, Zimmermann worked eight innings, allowing one run on four hits, walking none and striking out five. Had the Tigers managed any sort of offense, this would have been his victory. As it was, he left with a 1-1 tie. The Royals prevailed in 13 innings, 2-1.

"[Zimmermann] was very good," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. "He was throwing strikes, he had them chasing out of the zone, his pitch count was down. He was very sharp, he did an excellent job. He deserved to get a W, really."

With two double plays behind him, Zimmermann faced only 26 batters over eight innings. This outing was doubly encouraging, because this start indicated a return to something like the form he showed in April, when he was American League Pitcher of the Month.

He had a 0.55 ERA, the fourth lowest starters' ERA for that month since 1969. He has had a few sub-standard starts recently, but overall he is the source of rotation stability that the Tigers hoped he would be when they signed him.

"Today was good," Zimmermann said. "I've had three or four rough starts where I didn't feel like myself, but today I was much better. Made a little adjustment in the bullpen, felt good all day. I had four pitches working, hardly used my changeup at all, maybe a couple pitches. Slider was really, really good today."

Zimmermann is a strike-thrower. He leads all active pitchers with a minimum of 1,000 innings pitched in fewest walks per nine innings, with 1.81. Sunday, he threw first-pitch strikes to 24 of the 26 batters he faced.

"I knew I had to go deep," Zimmermann said. "I just went out there and pitched my game. When everything's working like that, it's fun to pitch. When you fall behind in a count you can come with something other than a fastball at any time and keep them off balance."

Throwing just 93 pitches, 70 for strikes, was one way of beating the heat.

"I had pretty quick innings most of the time," Zimmermann said. "And we had some cold towels in the dugout so I kept myself cool between innings, and I wasn't out there for long periods of time, so I was fine."

Zimmermann volunteered to work the ninth, but Ausmus decided to go to the bullpen. That decision didn't have a direct bearing on the outcome. The bullpen held off the Royals for four innings, but the Tigers couldn't scratch out a second run.

Zimmermann is now 9-3 with a 3.24 ERA for the Tigers. On this list of expensive free-agent pitching deals, every other pitcher had a larger windfall than Zimmermann, but only one, Johnny Cueto, currently has better 2016 numbers.

Here is a sampling of free-agent pitching contracts from last winter:

David Price, 7 years, $217 million, Red Sox.

Zack Greinke, 6 years, $206.5, D-backs.

Cueto, 6 years, $130 million, Giants.

Zimmermann, 5 years, $110 million.

We can throw in one more from the previous season, because Max Scherzer went from Detroit to Washington in free agency, while Zimmermann subsequently went from Washington to Detroit.

Scherzer, 7 years, $210 million, Nationals.

Yes, it is too early to make lasting comparisons of free-agent contributions based on the first 2 1/2 months of long-term contracts. But the initial results support what the Tigers believed they were getting in Zimmermann; a bulldog of a competitor with an ability to relentlessly command the strike zone.

Maybe $22 million per year is the going rate for those qualities. There will be clubs that will pay much more for less.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.