In 2022, there were 13 Orioles rookies who made their MLB debuts, and plenty more who came out of nowhere and had breakout seasons.
One who didn’t, unfortunately: hometown product Bruce Zimmermann. Born in Woodstock, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, Zimm grew up an Orioles fan, his first jersey an Adam Jones USA Baseball jersey. (Nice taste, young Bruce.) He attended Towson University and—good story—in 2021 he reportedly didn’t know if he’d end up making the Orioles roster out of spring training, so he lived with his parents because he didn’t have an apartment in Baltimore. Drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 2017, Zimm ended up playing for his home team when he came to Baltimore in 2018 in the trade that sent Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day to Atlanta.
It was a great story, even if the Baltimore beat writers did make a little too much of the homegrown connection (and were deservedly mocked by fans for it). Unfortunately, in 2022 Bruce Zimmermann didn’t do enough to show that he has a long-term spot on this roster.
He started well enough. April was the month where the Orioles offense couldn’t get going but the staff randomly had the best ERA in the AL and the top WAR in all of baseball. Zimmermann was the poster child for this stretch of success in both results and approach. Orioles pitchers as a whole were throwing fewer fastballs than before and landing them for strikes. Zimmermann, the type of soft-tossing lefty that needs to win the label “crafty” or else be out of a job, had success for a while doing this. He threw only 36% fastballs (down from 42% the year before), reworked his changeup and added a brand-new sinker in the offseason. The result: a 2.33 ERA in April.
Nice, but he couldn’t sustain it. He had three straight bad starts in May against the Red Sox and the Yankees. Those are good offenses, but 15 runs surrendered in 15 innings didn’t inspire confidence, and in June, facing Cleveland, Kansas City and Toronto, it got worse: he allowed five, seven, and six runs to those teams respectively. Zimmermann’s June ERA over three starts: 10.80.
The team optioned him to Triple-A Norfolk soon after, and he’d pitch only seven more innings for Baltimore after that: a scoreless one-inning relief appearance in July, and a six-inning outing in relief of Keegan Akin and Nick Vespi on September 5 in which he allowed five runs.
What happened? Peripherals, dear readers, peripherals. In plain English, Zimmermann got hit hard; actually, he got walloped. Zimmermann ranked in the very lowest 1% of MLB pitchers in expected average (.302), expected slugging (.502), expected ERA (6.32), WOBA (.384), and barrel percentage (13.2%), according to BaseballSavant’s Statcast metrics. It’s hard to put lipstick on those numbers.
Does Zimm have a future role on the Orioles now that they’re turning the corner? None of the above data is encouraging, obviously. A lot of us Marylanders are rooting for Zimmermann, but the fact that he spent just two days with the Orioles after June suggests that the team doesn’t have a great deal of confidence in him at this point.
The best case scenario, as I see it: this team has made silk purses out of a few sow’s ears this season (see, e.g., Voth, Austin; Pérez, Cionel; Baker, Bryan; Bautista, Félix … and many more). Zimmermann was having some success back in the spring playing down his fastball with a changeup and slider, and part of his downfall was apparently pitch-tipping. So if he can work on that, hone his offspeed arsenal in the offseason and come back refreshed next spring, he may have a chance to crack the roster as a lefty middle reliever. That’s the outcome I’m hoping for, but as this team continues to get more competitive, it will stockpile outside pitching talent, so that seems increasingly unlikely. I hope to be wrong about that, though.
The Baltimore kid on the Baltimore Orioles. It’s a good story, but good stories in sports don’t always end happily. We’ll see.
Tomorrow: Robinson Chirinos