TORONTO — The slide Bruce Zimmermann found himself on finally reached the bottom. The Orioles left-hander felt there were positives to take from his outing Wednesday night despite allowing six runs, but Baltimore optioned the 27-year-old to Triple-A Norfolk ahead of Thursday’s series finale against the Blue Jays.
The move comes at the end of a streak in which Zimmermann allowed 35 earned runs in his last 36 1/3 innings. In that span, he’s struck out 16 batters and allowed 17 home runs. The 18 homers he’s given up overall are the most in the major leagues.
It had been such a strong beginning to the season for the Loyola Blakefield product, as he pitched four scoreless innings during the home opener at Camden Yards for his hometown team. He went 14 innings to begin the year without allowing an earned run.
But those promising results fell away swiftly — and rediscovering his form has been a chore he hasn’t yet accomplished.
“When you’re not pitching well, and you’re not able to command certain pitches, it’s really, really tough in this league,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
The past three outings have been filled with adjustments for Zimmerman. He felt against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox last month that he might’ve been tipping pitches, so to counteract that, he lowered his hand position on his set to his back hip. He also altered his arm motion slightly in a bid to achieve the movement on his changeup that had been eluding him of late.
Instead, Zimmermann felt uncomfortable on the mound, and he allowed a combined 18 runs between those three starts against the Cleveland Guardians, Kansas City Royals and Toronto. But Wednesday, he reverted to his original arm motion, which he felt recaptured his changeup command. He drew six whiffs on that pitch, a positive development that buoyed his confidence despite three home runs against him.
“We kind of took a step back from a lot of the things we were trying to tinker with the past couple outings, kind of settled back into getting into my old mechanics,” Zimmermann said Wednesday night. “I saw a lot of life come back to my stuff this past rotation, the past few days in the bullpen and whatnot. Early on, I definitely had my changeup pretty close to where I had it earlier in the year.”
But there were still several mistakes Zimmermann wished he could’ve had back, such as an elevated sinker to Teoscar Hernández and a slider left low in the strike zone two batters later to Matt Chapman. Both resulted in two-run homers.
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It’s those issues that Hyde hopes can be amended facing a Triple-A lineup. Zimmermann’s four-seam fastball has offered little to distract opposing hitters from sitting on his offspeed offerings. They’re whiffing on just 12.4% of his fastballs, and they’re slugging .707 against that pitch.
“He’s getting hurt on a lot of offspeed pitches that are catching too much plate, in the thigh area, where he’s giving up homers,” Hyde said. “For me, he’s got to be able to command his fastball a little bit better, especially to these right-handed dominated lineups. Being able to get them off his offspeed, so even if you do make a mistake offspeed wise, they can’t sit all over it cause they’re not sitting out over the plate.”
Hyde said Zimmermann handled the news of his option “like a pro.” Right-hander Mike Baumann, who was on the taxi squad in Toronto, was recalled to join the club’s active roster.
When Zimmermann’s spot in the rotation comes around next week, Hyde said there are multiple options available. With a day off Monday, the Orioles can tinker with the order to avoid calling up another starter. Left-hander DL Hall might also be ready for his major league debut, although Hyde didn’t indicate Hall as an option.
Zimmermann appeared to be a potential candidate for a long-term role in the back end of the Orioles’ rotation. With Hall, left-hander John Means and right-hander Grayson Rodriguez seemingly ready to appear come 2023, the rotation could become crowded for Zimmermann — and he could lose his place entirely should his command not improve.
So with a trip to Triple-A, that will be the main focus, attempting to rediscover the form he had early this season to prove he has a place in Baltimore’s future.
“Zimm’s had a handful of tough starts, and we feel he needs to go down and do a reset a little bit,” Hyde said. “Work on some things mechanically, work on some things from a command standpoint with some of his pitches. He got off to a really good start to the year. Just hasn’t translated to his last few starts, and for me, the best thing for him is to go down and pitch in some lower pressure situations.”