I’ll admit it. I had completely given up on Jordan Zimmermann. Going into this season, I was willing to give him a pass on a disappointing and injury-plagued 2016 season — his first with the Tigers — that produced a 4.87 ERA. However, when he came out of the gate with a 6.47 ERA through his first two months this season, I thought he was done.
After such a long stretch of ineffectiveness, three good starts might not normally hold much weight, but Zimmermann’s June exploits deserve a closer look. Each of his outings this month has been a quality start, and collectively, they have resulted in a 2.25 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP.
Plenty of pitchers have put up similar numbers over three starts and have regressed, but it’s how Zimmermann compiled those numbers, more so than the stats themselves, that is notable. One thing that has been a constant for Zimmermann throughout his career is his sharp control, but through the end of May, he had thrown 62 percent of his pitches for strikes and compiled a 2.7 BB/9 ratio. In June, those mediocre rates have been replaced by a 68 percent strikes-thrown rate and a 2.3 BB/9. He has also ramped up the use of his sinker, throwing it 20 percent of the time and getting ground balls on it at a 90 percent rate. Zimmermann has also induced grounders on his four-seam fastball at a 5o percent rate, as compared to the 18 percent mark he achieved in April and May.
With improved control and stronger ground ball tendencies, Zimmermann has held opponents to a .655 OPS during this three-start run. His most recent start was the most impressive, as he lasted eight innings against the Diamondbacks, who rank third in wOBA against right-handed pitchers. Zimmermann turned 31 just last month, so in retrospect, it was too early to completely write him off. It is conceivable he has finally regained the form of his best years with the Nationals. Now is the time to take a gamble on Zimmermann while he is still widely available.
Other under-owned players
Jason Hammel, SP, Royals
Zimmermann is not the only veteran starter getting a second wind. Hammel has matched his Tigers’ counterpart with a 68 percent strikes-thrown rate over three June starts, but the signs of improvement go a little further back. Over his last five starts, Hammel has limited opponents to a 24 percent hard contact rate and a .127 Iso. His schedule has included the Yankees, Indians and Astros, so we can’t credit his matchups for the improvement over his first eight starts (33 percent hard contact rate, .152 Iso).
Hammel has been inconsistent over his career, but he has also had extended period of success. Based on his track record, his recent level of performance is believable, and it is reason enough to give him a try in standard and deeper mixed leagues.
Mike Fiers, SP, Astros
Fiers had briefly lost his spot in the Astros’ rotation back in late May, and with Lance McCullers, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton working towards their returns from the DL, he is doing his best to avoid another bullpen demotion. In his four starts since regaining his rotation spot, Fiers has gone 3-0 with a 1.78 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP. Pardon me if you’ve heard this story before, but Fiers has thrown strikes at a 68 percent rate during his hot streak, and he has smothered the opposition with an enhanced ground ball rate. In fact, Fiers has allowed a total of three extra-base hits (two doubles and a triple) over his last four starts.
Of these three 30-something starters, Fiers’ hot streak has been the most impressive. He is the also the most vulnerable to losing his starting role by far. As long as he has a rotation spot, though, Fiers is worth a try in standard mixed leagues.
Dexter Fowler, OF, Cardinals
Even with all of the unexpected power displays we have seen this season, Fowler’s home run surge stands out. He has homered in four straight games to bring his season-to-date total to 13. That matches Fowler’s home run count for all of 2016 and is only four shy of his career high set in 2015. His .254 batting average and .344 on-base percentage are slightly disappointing, but he is almost certain to improve his .174 batting average on ground balls.
While it is reasonable to expect Fowler to get on base more often going forward, there is also reason to look for him to continue his pace of home runs. His flyballs are travelling an average distance of 325 feet, as compared to 310 feet in 2016, and his hard contact rate has increased from 31 to 38 percent. Fowler is not widely available, but he is also far from universally owned. If he is on waivers in your 12-team mixed league, it’s time to add him to your roster.
Wilmer Flores, 1B/2B/3B, Mets
The rash of injuries to the Mets’ infielders has opened up the opportunity for Flores to play full-time. He has started 18 of the last 20 games for the Mets, and over that stretch, Flores has hit .300 with three home runs, three doubles, a triple, 11 runs and six RBIs. He has spent nine of the last 10 games in the meat of the Mets’ batting order, batting second, third or fourth. If he remains there, that should boost his run production.
There are enough viable options at second and third base that owners in standard mixed leagues don’t have to take a flier on Flores, though he is worth streaming in weeks that are heavy with opposing left-handed starters. Since 2015, Flores has a .989 OPS against lefties. In mixed leagues with at least 14 teams, Flores could be worth starting week in and week out.
Statistical credits: FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant.