Across the street from Elkridge’s Route 1 Athletics, the bones of new construction loom over the facility’s warehouse. Inside it, they’re helping to build what could be the next Maryland-born pitcher for the hometown Orioles.
Bruce Zimmermann, the Woodstock native who will be part of a prospect-laden group of nonroster invitees at Orioles spring training next month, is using the facility to prepare for his first major league spring training — and the biggest season of his young life.
He’ll drive down to Sarasota, Florida, in early February looking to make a first impression on a major league coaching staff for an Orioles team that’s desperate for starting rotation options. Next time he’s back near his Ellicott City home, it could be in the home whites at Camden Yards.
“I don’t think I could be any more ready,” Zimmermann said.
“With the state of the organization, being in Triple-A, you realize how close you are to making the dream come true of playing in the big leagues and just knowing that if I have a good season this year, it all depends on how the cards fall,” he said. “Sometimes in baseball, it’s just the luck of being in the right position at the right time. I think the position I’m in is the most advantageous to making that final jump, so going into this offseason, it was about taking care of what I could take care of, putting myself in the best position as possible, and just letting the chips fall as they may.”
Such confidence is well-earned, considering the growth Zimmerman saw from a similar program last year. A Loyola Blakefield graduate who pitched at Towson University before finishing his college career at Mount Olive (North Carolina), Zimmermann was a fifth-round draft pick of the Braves in 2017. He came to the Orioles in a deadline trade during the organization’s July 2018 teardown that sent Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day to Atlanta.
He’d shown more promise than a typical senior signee in 2018 with the Braves’ Class-A affiliate and was quickly promoted to Double-A, but the preceding offseason wasn’t a focused one. When he wasn’t at Shropshire Sports Training getting specialized work, Zimmermann was at the local YMCA cobbling together workouts he remembered from college and his pro debut with Crossfit-themed months like “Squatober” and “Deadcember.”
When he heard of other local ballplayers training at Route 1, he looked into it. Plenty of factors brought him to the new gym: Zimmermann’s agent, the Ballengee Group’s Jeff Randazzo, owns MapleZone Sports Institute outside of Philadelphia. Zimmermann said their director of sports performance, Rob Rabena, has a similar training background to Route 1 owner Chris Hannigan, and the two can collaborate on what Zimmermann needs with Hannigan adjusting the workouts prescribed by Rabena at the player’s request.
The specialized training ahead of the 2019 season led to a breakout campaign for Zimmermann at Double-A Bowie, with a 2.58 ERA and a strikeout per inning with a 1.20 WHIP earning him a late-July promotion to Triple-A Norfolk and a spot on several offseason top prospect lists.
His bump in performance and the methods he used echo those of another out-of-nowhere left-hander in the Orioles organization who rode them to great heights in 2019: All-Star John Means.
“Any jump as you get older is something worthwhile," Zimmermann said. "It was very fulfilling to see that kind of jump happen after the work I was able to put in. I went from averaging 88 [mph on my fastball] to averaging 91, so it was enough of an increase to open more eyes, especially at the higher levels as a lefty.”
The basis of his training this offseason was largely similar, but informed by a trip out west for a week at the renowned Driveline facility outside Seattle that uses technology and biomechanics to enhance baseball players. Zimmermann and fellow Orioles farmhand Brian Gonzalez took the trip together early in the offseason, and Zimmermann, who already did some of the facility’s programs thanks to his college days, got some “fine-tuning” he said he needed.
With a little help from his agent and his family, he was able to make the cross-country trip that means had prevented.
“I realized that this offseason was probably the most important one yet,” he said. “I just looked at it directly as an investment, just like you would at a normal job going to get a certification or something to get a pay raise, get a promotion. It was definitely looked at as an investment and so far, it’s definitely paid off for me this offseason. I’m excited to see how it will implement this offseason.”
The assessment highlighted what he described as some mechanical aspects of his lower half that he hadn’t been able to identify himself on the mound, and his trainers have built a workout plan around the required adjustment. He said he also did some pitch design work on his off-speed pitches that he’d been struggling with.
“It wasn’t a total overhaul by any means or anything,” Zimmermann said. “It was kind of finding that next competitive edge that’s going to get me that next bump, basically. I think I was able to lock in on a few things that I’ve been able to work on since September and hopefully, it translates well to this season.”
The foundation of it all, though, is at Route 1 Athletics, where Zimmermann and his throwing partner, Michael Austin, typically have the run of the place in the morning. They’ll do their pitcher’s stretch and arm care to start, same as ever, then use every inch of a turf-covered basketball court to throw on days when Zimmermann doesn’t have a bullpen session.
Last Thursday, his workout was more lower-body oriented. He and Austin use the mornings without the younger after-school crowd to blast different kinds of music than high school kids would listen to. The staff gets a kick out of their Disney days, a small reward to break up the monotony of a day for a team that’s gotten to know their local pitching prospect well.
Austin and Zimmermann run an arm care program for local athletes three days a week at the facility (around Zimmermann’s side job with TaskRabbit, which allows him to work flexible hours doing home improvement and furniture assembly jobs for the gig app), and they take pride in the work they’ve all put in with him as his trip to Florida nears. The team includes Hannigan and physical therapist Lindsay Kirlin, who works at the facility through FX Physical Therapy.
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“The biggest thing with professional athletes is they need a team of support,” Hannigan said. “It’s not just a trainer, not just a physical therapist, it’s not just a pitching coach in his case. They need a team that can communicate openly and understand what it’s going to take for them to get to that next level.”