Revisiting The Jon Lester Jordan Zimmermann Comparison

Last December I wrote a piece comparing the striking similarity to Jordan Zimmermann and Jon Lester’s career paths. While Lester is a lefty (Zimmermann is a righty), and Zimmermann is one year older than the Red Sox hurler, the two both have similar approaches to the game, and both were forced to regain their prospect status after a major medical set back. 

This is the comparison I presented last year:

Zimm Season 1: 23-years-old, 16 GS, 4.63 ERA, 9.07 K/9, 3.35 xFIP
Lester Season 1: 22-years-old, 15 GS, 4.76 ERA, 6.64 K/9, 5.05 xFIP

Zimm Season 2: 24-years-old,  7 GS, 4.94 ERA, 7.84 K/9, 4.08 xFIP
Lester Season 2: 23-years-old, 11 GS, 4.57 ERA, 7.14 K/9, 5.12 xFIP

This is how that comparison carried over into season No. 3:

Zimm Season 3: 25-years-old, 26 GS, 3.18 ERA, 6.9 K/9, 3.78 xFIP
Lester Season 3: 24-years-old, 33 GS, 3.21 ERA, 6.5 K/9, 3.09 xFIP

Seems like the comparison remained very close moving into their respective third seasons. Both had two half seasons interrupted by a major injury, and both had major breakout seasons in their third professional campaigns. Of course, there are some areas where they began to differ. Lester’s ability to induce ground balls improved in his third campaign, up to 47.5% in 2008 from 34.4% in 2007. Zimmermann saw his ground ball percentage fall from 48.9% to 39.4%.

While they both still have relatively the same repertoire; fastball, slider, curveball, changeup, Zimmermann has seen his velocity surpass where Lester’s was at the same point in his career. This is typical though when comparing righties and lefties.

The next obvious question to ask from this is, how did Lester fare for the Red Sox in season No. 4?

In 203.1 innings pitched, Lester posted a 15-8 record with a 3.41 ERA for Boston in 2009. Most notably, however, Lester saw his high pre-injury strikeout rate return at the Major League level. In 203.1 innings pitched he struck out a career high 225 batters, resulting in a 10.0 k/9 rating. While that rate hasn’t completely sustained in the two years since, he led the league in k/9 in 2010 with a 9.7 rate, and posted a solid 8.5 k/9 in 2011.

Will we see the same progression from Zimmermann in 2012? Maybe, but probably not. While to me a strong k/9 is a healthy sign of overall effectiveness, Nats general manager Mike Rizzo and pitching coach Steve McCatty have been firm on their strategy of having their pitchers ‘pitch to contact.’ The idea behind this strategy is that their hurlers will throw less pitches per outing, ultimately saving their, and the bullpen’s arm. But I’m still not personally sold on the idea that allowing your defense to make outs the majority of the time is better than trying to stop hitters from even putting the ball in play…but that’s another article.

We do know that prior to his Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann was one of the better strikeout pitchers in the minor leagues. In 50 minor league appearances he posted a 9.4 K/9, and in his first MLB season he struck out 9.1 batters per nine innings. So the ability is certainly there.